Since September 2005, the three major consumer credit reporting agencies have been required to provide consumers with free annual credit reports upon request. So, to see what the agencies have on record, I sent many of my personal identifying characteristics through a secure Internet connection in exchange for comprehensive reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
After giving up my name, Social Security number, date of birth and two most recent addresses, I was invited to each of the three reporting agencies' Web sites, one at a time.
Upon arriving at the first site, I was challenged to answer questions about my current financial picture -- "To which bank do you write a loan check every month?" and "How much is the monthly payment?" I provided those answers, which I know quite well. With that, I gained admittance to the first agency's site, where I was able to download a rather comprehensive picture of my financial history.
For the second identity challenge, I was asked the street number of a prior address. Now, between various jobs, schools and internships, I've lived at almost a dozen different addresses -- some for just a few months -- and I'm supposed to remember the street numbers for each one? I already had given that part of my brain over to the mixture for a mint julep.
Fortunately, I had a cheat sheet. I merely checked the report from the first provider to supply answers for the other two providers. And, to be honest, I needed the help. But the process did leave me with a nagging sense of vulnerability, in that the personal data required to obtain a full dossier on someone seems insufficient compared to the prize.
And what a prize! The heavyweight Equifax report clocked in at 28 pages, dwarfing Experian's 16 pages and TransUnion's lightweight seven-page report. Though laden with data, I can't say that any of the reports were particularly shining examples of information design, but you get what you pay for.
I now can be reasonably certain that my identity has not been stolen -- yet. But, in ascertaining that, I now have more than 50 pages of sensitive data that someone could use against me. Time to feed the shredder.