WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The most villainous villain in all of Shakespeare, it is generally agreed, is the evil Iago in ''Othello,'' but the dastard gets off one great line.
Good name in man and woman, says Iago, is the immediatjewel of their souls. ''Who steals my purse steals trash, 'tis something, nothing.'' Then comes a truth for all ages: ''But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed.''
The familiar passage came to mind last month when the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs renewed its consideration of credit bureaus. Twenty years have passed since Congress enacted the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In these two decades the technology of credit reporting has gone almost literally from quill pen to computer chip.
In the process, the threat to individual reputations has mushroomed in the same way. Today the three dominant credit bureaus maintain dossiers on 90 percent of all adult Americans. A serious error in their reporting can effectively ruin my good name, or yours, or anyone's.
Rep. Esteban Torres, D-Calif., put it this way: ''Under current law, the lives of consumers are an open book. Sensitive personal financial data is bought and sold without consumers' knowledge or consent; workers are denied employment or even blackballed because of information placed in their files; inaccurate credit information is difficult, if not impossible, to remove from a consumer's record.''
The committee heard from witnesses who have experienced the consequences of error. One such witness may be identified as John Robert Doe. In January 1990 he was abruptly fired from his job with a Washington cablevision firm.
In bewilderment he sought an explanation and at last received an answer. The company has an absolute policy against employing persons with a history of drug abuse. A check with one of the big-three bureaus let the company know that John Robert Doe had been convicted of possession of cocaine and sentenced to 12 months on probation. The credit bureau had ''verified'' this information by a cross-check of Doe's name and birthdate.
The information was totally false. Through human error, John Robert Doe, born March 17, 1954, had been confused with John Raymond Doe, born Dec. 15, 1963. Even for John Raymond Doe, the information was seriously inaccurate. The two men had different Social Security numbers and different addresses. John Robert Doe is a black college graduate, married, underemployed, and ''I have no idea when the erroneous report will return to haunt me.''
John Robert Doe might as well be identified as Legion, for his name is many. Subcommittee files bulge with personal experiences that might have come from the pen of Franz Kafka. Last April, Consumers Union arranged for 57 of its employees, or their acquaintances, to obtain their credit reports. They sent the required fees, usually $15, to the big-three bureaus and received 161 reports in return.
Of the 161 reports, 48 percent contained inaccurate information. Nineteen percent contained a ''major'' inaccuracy, of sufficient gravity to result in denial of a job, a loan or a charge account. Under the law, individual credit reports are supposed to be made available only to companies that have a legitimate business need for the information. It was apparent that 27 percent of the reports had been seen by persons with no authority to see them.
In testimony before the subcommittee, a spokeswoman for Consumers Union acknowledged that a sample of 161 reports is too small for extrapolation into 400 million credit dossiers. One wonders all the same. The credit bureaus insist that the number of material inaccuracies is ''infinitesimal,'' but it would be interesting to check a statistically valid sample of, say, 2,000 or 2,500 files.
The several bills now pending in the House subcommittee are intended to provide individual consumers with greater protection than they now enjoy. At the very least, amendments to the basic act should permit a citizen, on request, once a year to obtain a free and comprehensible copy of his own credit report.
I understand the importance of credit. It fuels our entire economy. But I also understand the meaning of power, and I know that the credit bureaus wield power that is awesome and often invisible. It is important that power be exercised, but it is even more important that power be restrained.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.