November 14, 2001
The Supreme Court has made it harder for victims of identity theft to recover damages from credit bureaus. The court ruled 9-0 that legal claims must be filed within two years of the time the mistake occurred, even if the victim doesn't learn of the error in that time.
The case involved a lawsuit against TRW by a Southern California woman whose credit rating was stolen and used by a Las Vegas woman with a similar name.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said the language of the statute is quite clear and judges have no authority to ignore the intent of Congress, even if it seems more fair to do so.
Consumer advocates decried the ruling, saying it gives the three big credit bureaus little incentive to be more diligent, and called on Congress to amend the law.
"By limiting a consumer's right to sue credit bureaus, the court encourages an already mistake-ridden credit reporting system to keep up the bad work," said Ed Mierzwinski of US PIRG, a public interest research group.
The high court ruling grew out of the case of Adelaide Andrews. In June 1993 she visited a doctor's office in Santa Monica and filled out a patient form that asked for her Social Security number and other information.
The receptionist, Andrea Andrews, allegedly copied the number and took it with her when she moved to Las Vegas, where she used it to open accounts for herself. TRW did not notice the discrepancy in first name and birth date.
Andrews discovered the error in 1995 when she applied to refinance her home. TRW eventually corrected her file but Andrews said the mistake caused her to pay a higher interest rate. She sued TRW in October 1996. The company argued her suit was filed too late, a position the Supreme Court upheld in its ruling.
TRW has since sold its credit-reporting business to Experian. A company spokesman said the ruling illustrates the importance of consumers checking their credit records occasionally.