Credit checks have become necessary for everything from bank loans to job applications. Yet, as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, the system for credit reports is riddled with problems. For one thing, many jobs require them (even a Craigslist listing Oliver found for a fireworks tent manager), even though it’s not clear how much of an impact credit has on job performance, as Oliver was sure to point out.
“Look at me, my credit is properly fine but I routinely waste HBO’s money on stupid costumes, pyrotechnic displays, and checkered dress shirts,” Oliver said. “I clearly cannot manage this company’s money well.”
More importantly, Oliver found that many credit reports are riddled with errors: 25 percent of people had some kind of error in theirs, and 5 percent had “significant” mistakes that force them to pay more for a loan. These mistakes range from mixing up women named Judy Thomas and Judith Kendall, to branding one young man a terrorist.
“That is terrible, because 1) He is not a terrorist, and 2) I do hope we have a better strategy for dealing with terrorists than flagging their credit reports and denying them their dream apartments,” Oliver said.
There are dozens of small companies offering “background checks” that combine credit reporting with criminal and driving records, so many that Oliver found video of a Federal Trade Commission spokesperson saying she didn’t even know exactly how many such companies existed. These companies sometimes make mistakes in their reports as egregious as confusing one man with three different sexual offenders by the same name, one of whom was several decades older.
The three main credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — have problems of their own, and complaints against them aren’t new. Oliver found clips of TV news stories about errors in credit reports dating back to 1991. One of these stories even featured another woman named Judy Thomas struggling with errors in her credit report.
“Another Judy Thomas! So Judy Thomas was not even the only Judy Thomas this had happened to,” Oliver said. “The lesson here is pretty simple: If you or someone you know is named Judy Thomas, give up. There is no hope in life for Judys like you.”
To get back at these credit companies for their errors and make them understand the problems they create for others, Oliver and his team started goofy companies with names “problematically similar” to the main three bureaus. Equifacks takes shelter animals to lick peanut butter off random people’s genitals, Experianne sends people to whisper passages from Mein Kampf into babies’ ears, and TramsOnion sells steaks made from the flesh of SeaWorld orcas.
“It would clearly be an absolute 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 full clip below.