A 28-year-old Chicago college student has narrowly averted having to miss her spring semester because of an error made by the Social Security Administration, which nearly thwarted her ability to obtain federal and private student loans.
When the Social Security office inadvertently declared Ashley Walker dead last November, the error set in motion a situation where the junior at Chicago State University majoring in chemistry had to authenticate her own identity.
While the Social Security office changed her status on Jan. 3 and has issued her a new copy of her number, giving Walker the ability to receive her student loans, she is still waiting on three credit bureaus to acknowledge her existence and reverse their decision. Her credit score has plummeted to 540 because of the error.
Walker had an inkling something was amiss on her credit report in November when she attempted to buy a new car and was denied credit even though her score, as far as she knew, was good. When she tried to order new Internet service, she was also turned down and told that there was a problem regarding her Social Security number.
When she tried to obtain another copy of her Social Security card, Walker was informed by a clerk that she had been declared "dead." Her shock rose when the date the office gave her was Aug. 31, 2016, the same day her father died from lung cancer.
"It has been very stressful," she said. "It frustrates me. Always check your credit score and make sure you get a monthly report."
She surmises the problem could have stemmed from the fact that she was an informant on her father's death certificate. Of course, her Social Security number was not listed then. However, she mailed a copy of the certificate to all three credit bureaus after his death.
Walker soon found out that Experian declared her dead and informed the credit card companies, which halted use of the plastic associated with her.
"The credit bureaus refused to budge and even accused me of fraud," she wrote on her GoFundMe page. "They said Social Security told them I was dead. Equifax has a number that stays busy. TransUnion keeps saying they have to connect me with their U.S. office, and then I get disconnected on every call."
While Chicago State University is working on obtaining her financial aid in order for her to attend classes on Jan. 9, Walker's next challenge is to work with the three credit bureaus to change her status in order for her credit score to increase. She still has not received a response despite her repeated attempts to contact them.
In response to a query by TheStreet, Marisa Salcines, a spokesperson for Atlanta-based Equifax asked for Walker to contact the agency directly to address the issue. Experian, the Dublin, Ireland-based company, and Chicago-based TransUnion did not respond to requests for comment.
The Consumer Financial Bureau has fined Chicago-based TransUnion and Equifax a total of $23.2 million for deceiving consumers about the usefulness and cost of credit scores they purchased. TransUnion must pay $13.9 million, and Equifax has been ordered to pay almost $3.8 million in restitution to affected consumers. In addition, TransUnion must pay $3 million, and Equifax must pay $2.5 million to the Bureau's civil penalty fund.
The Social Security Administration's office offered no explanation as to the cause of the error but did offer an apology. Walker, who works part-time as a sales associate at a Chicago department store, says the response from friends and strangers via her crowdfunding campaign and media coverage makes her feel "loved."
"I feel that my story connects to a lot of people that this has happened to," she said.
Any additional funds raised from her crowdfunding campaign will be saved for the rest of her education since Walker plans to pursue a graduate degree in astrochemistry. In June, she is attending a ten-week fellowship at Harvard University.
The ordeal has taught Walker to keep all her personal and financial information in an easily accessible place, to follow through with emails from her university and to check her credit score on a regular basis.
"I am kind of happy this happened," she said. "A red flag was an email from my university asking for verification. I am glad I didn't ignore the email."
The accuracy of the information in credit reports is critical, because one error such as a missed payment can lower an individual's credit score immediately. Consumers should check the details and not only examine the credit score. A credit report can act as an "early warning detector" and alert people to identity theft, credit fraud and critical reporting errors, said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization.
Even seemingly minor errors can take up to 30 days to investigate and an even longer period if a credit bureau requests additional information to justify a query, which can prove to be a hurdle for consumers who are attempting to obtain a loan.
"If problems are detected, swift action should follow," he said. "Time is the enemy when there are credit reporting errors that are left unreported. The longer a problem lingers, the harder it becomes to undo the damage. Some complex issues can take months and years to unravel."
One of the largest indicators that an error could have appeared on an individual's credit report is when that person is declined any type of credit, said Jeff Golding, chief growth officer at IRH Capital, a Northbrook, Ill.-based financial company.
"Most people do not know until they find out they are declined for a credit card or loan," he said. "Someone is entering your data manually and if they are off by one digit, it can drastically affect your credit file."
Too many consumers believe they have good credit simply because they are paying their utilities and cell phone and cable bills on time, but those types of bills are not reported to the credit bureaus unless a payment is missed.
"Check for accuracy and be proactive when it comes to your credit," Golding said. "The challenge is that your credit score plays such a major role in your daily life."