Elizabeth J. Gammie is not dead.
I haven't known her long, but I'm going to vouch for her. Standing before me on a recent afternoon, her cheeks looked rosy and her hand felt warm and soft when we shook. The almost 81-year-old Parkville resident was heading out to play a mean game of cards with friends.
Just to make sure it wasn't a body double, I inspected her passport and Maryland driver's license to make sure she really is who she says she is. Short of a DNA test, I was convinced.
But I digress. While you might not care whether or not the retired nurse - B.J. as she's known by her friends - is alive and kicking, she really wanted the creditor who is insisting that she is "deceased" to cease and desist because you're messing with her ability to spend.
Almost two months ago, Gammie left a voice-mail message asking for help after trying to open up a credit card with Bedford Fair, a North Carolina catalog company. "I saw this blue sweater set that I wanted to buy because I'm going on a cruise later this year," Gammie said. "They told me to open up a credit card with them and I wouldn't have to pay for shipping. So I did it. A little later, they sent me a letter saying I couldn't open up an account because a `deceased flag' was showing on my credit report. I am very much alive."
Now, that got my attention. I had to interview her because it's not every day I get to see dead people.
Little did I know that proving Gammie has a pulse would be so maddening.
It's important to note that consumers should check their credit report every year, especially now that the federal government and the state of Maryland make a free report available to you. It will give you a chance to see mistakes and dispute errors.
Should you be denied credit, you also have a right to request a free report from the specific reporting company that the lender uses.
So that's where we started.
I called Experian, the credit reporting agency in California that the catalog company's letter said was used to deny Gammie credit.
I've been kidding a bit about the dead thing, but a "deceased flag" on a report does not mean a tiny red flag pops up to signal that "this individual is dead." In more common cases, deceased flags can appear when the Social Security Administration has notified the reporting agencies that a specific Social Security number belongs to a deceased individual. In some cases, however, it just means that at least one account on a credit report is associated with a deceased individual.
We needed a copy of her credit report.
A day or so later, Rod Griffin, Experian's manager of consumer education, said Gammie's credit report was examined thoroughly, and no such flag was found. They sent a copy to her. Griffin said Gammie's credit score was "good" so perhaps, an Experian report wasn't the culprit.
So I called the two other large credit reporting agencies, TransUnion in Chicago and Equifax in Atlanta.
TransUnion quickly sent Gammie her report. No flag. Last week, Equifax called and said there was no flag. Her Equifax report was in the mail. Both informed Gammie that she had a good credit score.
All three credit agencies gave us advice on how to dispute an error on a credit report, but what do you do when you can't find the error? You can't contest an error that all three agencies are saying doesn't exist. Who was reporting that deceased flag? How do you find a needle in a haystack?
No one had answers. Even a Federal Trade Commission spokesman laughed (with us, he assured, not at us) when we told him about Gammie's problem.
I enlisted U.S. PIRG, the consumer interest group, for assistance.
Gammie's problem sounded "Kafkaesque," Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski said. "You've been accused of something. We can't tell you what the source is. We can't get the record clean. We can't name the accuser."
Well, Gammie's situation isn't necessarily that sinister, but it was feeling pretty absurd.
With no resolution in sight after two weeks of failed attempts, we were stumped. We had only the following facts:
In June 2001, Gammie's dear husband, George B. Gammie, died of heart disease. They had several joint accounts. It's possible that his Social Security number is popping up somewhere when Mrs. Gammie applies for credit, showing a deceased account holder. But his information does not show up anywhere on her credit reports.
Shortly after her husband's death, Gammie tried to open a MetLife account. She was told there was a "deceased flag" on her report. Gammie didn't open that account, but at the time, MetLife told her the mistake was corrected. Gammie never thought about it again until now.
Gammie has opened up credit cards with other companies since her husband's death. Two or three years ago, she received credit cards from Talbot's and Chico's. That means the flag only pops up occasionally.