James Rennick needed $125,000 fast.

It was January 2017 and Angela, his high-school sweetheart and wife of five decades, was dying of lung, kidney, bone and brain cancer. He needed a home-equity loan for renovations including a full downstairs bathroom, an air conditioner so Angela could breathe in the Florida heat, and porch screening so his wife could be outside even with her “extreme allergy to the bugs in the area.”

He also needed the money to cover the burial costs he worried were coming.

Rennick didn’t get the money.

James Rennick and his wife Angela were both cremated because there wasn’t enough money for the more expensive option of burial, court papers said.

A mortgage broker said there was a problem with his Equifax and Experian credit reports. That was the start of an ordeal consumer advocates say is all too common: Rennick’s credit-history information was mixed up with that of another man.

The files stated that Rennick was dead, according to the broker. Equifax and Experian, two of the three major credit-reporting agencies gathering data on a person’s creditworthiness, had somehow blended his credit history with an unrelated James Palmer, Rennick’s 2017 lawsuit said.

Rennick was in desperate need of money to help his ailing wife, with an incorrect credit report standing in his way, his lawsuit alleged. Rennick, 70, passed away in May 2018 with his lawsuit pending.

“He died of a broken heart,” his daughter Michele Malverty said in a deposition last September.

Rennick and his wife were both cremated because there wasn’t enough money for the more expensive option of burial, court papers said.

Malverty is preparing for an November trial against Equifax in a Tampa, Fla. federal court.

(An Equifax spokesman said the company would not comment on pending litigation. TransUnion and Experian also did not respond to request for comment.)

The other James — James Palmer — resided in Granville, N.Y. and died in 2016 at age 71. The two men shared the same first name, but as the case progressed Malverty would discover that, due to a series of alleged missteps by the companies involved, they shared more than that.

A severe example of an ongoing problem

This was not the only case of its kind. Four years ago, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion reached settlements with more than 30 attorneys general. Among other systemic changes, the 2015 pacts required the bureaus to share information about confirmed “mixed files” and develop best practices to avoid saying a living consumer was dead.

‘There’s a culture there that they are more concerned about the satisfaction of the creditors and debt collectors rather than getting things rights.’

—Chi Chi Wu, National Consumer Law Center staff attorney

The Rennick case suggests changes are slow at the “Big Three,” said Chi Chi Wu, a National Consumer Law Center staff attorney. “There’s a culture there that they are more concerned about the satisfaction of the creditors and debt collectors rather than getting things rights,” she said.

Earlier this year, she wrote a report saying the three credit bureaus use “overly loose matching criteria” when they put debt collector and creditor information on a person’s file.

One quarter of the 329,800 complaints the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received last year pertained to Equifax EFX, +0.15%, Experian EXPGY, -0.24%  and TransUnion TRU, -1.81%. Some 83% of those complaints were related to incorrect information on file — which could include a mixed file among other things — or a problem with an investigation of a dispute.

But it’s difficult to say specifically how often mixed files happen.

Equifax’s expert witness at a separate 2013 trial said mixed files may occur in 1% to 2% of all files. Given that the CFPB estimates that 208 million Americans have records with at least one of the three major credit bureaus, those percentages — if extrapolated for all three bureaus — could mean that up to 2 million people have someone else’s information in their file.

Wu said even 1% is a lot. “This is a consumer’s financial reputation.”

In some cases, consumers are able to get errors fixed promptly. Experian fixed Rennick’s snafu after the first dispute, his lawyer said. Experian settled Rennick’s lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, court papers show.

‘This is a consumer’s financial reputation.’

—Chi Chi Wu, National Consumer Law Center staff attorney

But it’s been a different story with Equifax.

Rennick sent a Social Security Administration letter to Equifax, vouching for him. He went back to the broker hoping that would fix the problem. Yet Rennick’s report said he was behind on mortgage payments, the broker said. Rennick obtained a letter from the lender saying the mortgage in question wasn’t his.

In court papers, Equifax said it removed a “deceased” notation during Rennick’s first phone dispute.

However, Angela, 68, died before Rennick could disentangle the reports and get a loan. She died in June 2017 and Rennick sued a month later.

After Angela’s death, the partially paralyzed Rennick got a Kia so his daughter could drive him around. The bank repossessed the vehicle because, according to court papers, Rennick’s credit report stated said he was deceased, according to his lawyer. For its part, Equifax said it had already removed the “deceased” notation.

A jury will decide the case now

The credit bureau violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Malverty’s lawsuit contends. When consumer reporting agencies offer information on someone’s creditworthiness, the law states they must “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information.”

Daniel Zemel, the Clifton, N.J. attorney representing Malverty, has filed about 200 cases annually against credit-reporting bureaus for alleged credit-reporting violations. He has had five cases related to mixed files, he said. “The injury here is worse than any other case I ever had,” he told MarketWatch. “None of them are as extreme as this case.”

Equifax says it ‘dutifully conducted an investigation each and every time Rennick made a dispute.’

The Rennicks were Catholic and burial was the family custom, he said. Angela was scared of fire, stemming from a childhood burn on her face, Zemel noted.

Though creditors supplied incorrect information, Equifax said it didn’t break the Fair Credit Reporting Act in how it handled Rennick’s dispute. The company said in court filings it didn’t act with malice and, in fact, “dutifully conducted an investigation each and every time Rennick made a dispute.”

What’s more, there’s no guarantee Rennick would have secured the money, Equifax argues. It noted Rennick didn’t have the title to the house. But Zemel said the Rennicks could have easily obtained the title as they applied for the loan.

So how did the two files become mixed up?

James Rennick, of Spring Hill, Fla., and James Palmer of Granville, N.Y., never met, but they had two important things in common: The same first name and the same sequence in eight digits of their nine-digit Social Security numbers.

The similarities between the two numbers “would not, under Equifax’s procedures, cause the Rennick and Palmer files to mix,” the credit bureau said in court papers.

James Rennick, of Spring Hill, Fla., and James Palmer of Granville, N.Y., never met, but it would turn out that they had two important things in common.

But Equifax said a mortgage lender in 2006 listed Palmer’s Social Security number for a mortgage that Rennick owned. The lender later updated the report with Rennick’s correct number and transferred it to another lender. Those updates made the two files combine in 2008.

“From that time until Rennick’s disputes to Equifax, accounts for both Rennick and Palmer appeared in a single, shared file,” Equifax said in a court filing.

While the Rennick case prepares for trial, Palmer’s surviving wife also has a pending lawsuit against Equifax in New York State federal court. She alleges the couple had difficulties obtaining credit and a repossessed car because of the mix-up. Equifax denies liability and is fighting the case.

Mixed-filed cases may be infrequent compared to other credit-report issues, but they can be the toughest to correct — especially without litigation,” said consumer lawyer Penny Hays Cauley of Florence, S.C. Mixed file cases account for around 10% of her cases on credit-reporting problems.

Once incorrect data gets in the system, fixing credit reports can be like operating in an ‘echo chamber.’

—Justin Baxter of Baxter & Baxter

Mixed files are difficult to fix because once bad data enters the computerized credit-information systems, it can be tough to erase, said Justin Baxter, a lawyer with Baxter & Baxter in Portland, Ore. “It’s just an echo chamber,” he said.

Cauley represented a woman whose credit information was mixed with someone with a bad credit history. It was especially worrisome because her client was married to a man with top secret security clearance, Cauley explained.

The man’s employer often checked its workers and their relatives’ backgrounds for troubling signs, she added. “It just created this level of stress for the family,” said Cauley, noting the case resulted in a 2014 confidential settlement.

In 2013, Baxter won an $18.6 million jury verdict against Equifax for a client named Julie Miller whose information merged with a different Julie Miller. Miller filed multiple disputes with Equifax over two years, to no avail. Appellate judges cut Miller’s award to $1.62 million in damages and $300,000 in legal fees, Baxter said.

Meanwhile, as Malverty’s trial date nears, both sides are fighting over what information can be admitted into the courtroom.

Equifax’s lawyers say jurors shouldn’t hear about the Rennicks seeking the money for home improvement, or that they were both cremated. Hearing both matters could unfairly turn the jury against the credit bureau, they say.

Zemel did not make Malverty available for an interview.

But in her September 2018 deposition, Malverty said the mix-up files wrecked her and her family. “I’m tormented every day,” she said at the time. One memory was finding her father talking to her mother’s urn, saying “’Ang, I’m sorry I let you down.’”