HBO’s John Oliver Shows the Infuriating Truth about Credit Reporting Agencies

April 11, 2016, 2:12 PM UTC

You’ve got to give John Oliver credit for using his HBO talk show to take on credit reports.

On Sunday’s broadcast of Last Week Tonight, the British satirist swung his comedy brickbats at a widely trusted yet woefully under-regulated industry that has the power to impact most Americans’ economic wellbeing: credit checks.

It’s a system that dictates how banks lend money, landlords rent apartments, insurers insure and employers decide who to hire. “It’s not just banks deciding whether to lend you money,” Oliver said. “It’s also landlords deciding whether to rent you an apartment. Insurers setting your rates. And even employers using it to decide whether or not to hire you.”

But its own reliability has remained in doubt for more than a quarter century.

Over the course of an 18-minute segment that was informative, hilarious and infuriating in equal measure, Oliver made a damning case for how the three major consumer credit reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—bungle their work an alarming percentage of the time.

“Government studies found that about 25 percent of consumers have an error in one of their credit reports and one in 20 had significant errors that could cause them to pay more for their car loan or a mortgage,” a broadcast news clip featured on the show said.

“That is not good,” noted Oliver. “If every 20th Frosty that Wendy’s sold turned out to be a cup of warm goat semen, we would want some accountability and we’d want it fast!”

Mistaken identity

Credit report errors can range from relatively minor issues such as already repaid debts all the way up to mistaken identity. In a clip from Al Jazeera America, a man named Amit Patel is shown discovering his rental application had been refused because a credit reporting agency mixed him up with another Amit Patel ID-ed as a terrorist. An Austin, Texas-area woman named Helen McGill discovered she was dead—at least, according to reports issued by the three major credit agencies. “I even paid at that point to get my credit score,” McGill said in a clip from a KXAN. “You can’t get anything when you’re deceased. No point scores, nothing. You don’t exist.”

And thanks to a similar informational glitch, a 30-year-old named Samuel Jackson was mistaken with three separate men sharing his name who were convicted sex offenders.

An old problem

But as damaging and difficult to fix as such issues can be, Oliver was quick to point out that erroneous credit reports are hardly a new phenomenon. He showed a montage of news clips about unreliable background checks dating back 25 years to underscore how bad credit reports are a classic news story trope. “Like ‘Oldest person dies.’ Or, ‘Scary new teen sex trends,’” said Oliver.

According to Last Week Tonight‘s number crunching, the three major credit bureaus have been the subject of most of the complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since the beginning of 2015. And in a settlement agreement last March, they pledged to improve their resolution process.

Yet, Oliver pointed out, an industry trade group issued a press release, “FTC Report Confirms Credit Reports Are Accurate,” arguing that 95 percent of consumers are unaffected by errors in their credit reports.

“When you are holding records for more than 200 million individuals, that 5 percent error rate effects 10 million people,” said Oliver. “They’re basically saying, ‘Great news, everyone. We only [bleeped] up a group equivalent to the entire population of Sweden. We’re the [bleeping] greatest!”

Bad companies

In a big to make the industry understand the jeopardy they are placing people in, Last Week Tonight set up fake companies “with names that are problematically similar” to the big three credit report bureaus:

Equifacks: “They take shelter animals to customers’ homes where the animals lick peanut butter off people’s genitals before being immediately returned to the shelter,” Oliver said.

Experianne: A company “that sends people to whisper passages from Mein Kampf into babies’ ears with the permission of neither the babies nor the parents.”

TransOnion: “You can buy delicious looking steaks made from the flesh of dead Orcas who worked at Sea World”

“It would clearly be a disaster for the credit agencies if they were mistaken for any of these companies,” Oliver said. “But don’t worry. I’m sure that won’t happen 95 percent of the time.”

Watch the entire segment here:

Chris Lee is a former staff writer forEntertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.

Update: An earlier version of this story noted Al Jazeera America had reported on a man who discovered his rental application was refused because the California Association of Realtors mixed him up with another man with the same name. A spokesperson for the California Association of Realtors said that the organization didn’t provide this credit check or any other credit check; it has a “marketing relationship” with a credit reporting agency that conducts the checks for C.A.R. members at a discount.