Living with credit

Consumers are warming to nontraditional credit data

Kelly Dilworth

Lenders aren’t the only ones interested in using alternative credit data, such as mobile phone payments and savings account information, to score potential borrowers. Consumers are warming up to the idea, too, according to new research from the credit bureau Experian.

Among the findings:

48 percent said they would be open to having their utility bills scrutinized by lenders.

39 percent said they would appreciate it if lenders would consider their savings or checking account history.

38 percent said they would prefer that lenders also looked at their cellphone payments.

Meanwhile, more than half of consumers said that their credit scores would likely benefit if the scores included nontraditional data.

Where am I in these statistics? I am in favor of alternate credit data – as long as it is accurate. (More on my take on alternate scoring later.)

Alternative data can help people get credit

Proponents of the use of alternative data have long argued that incorporating nontraditional information into credit decisions could help many people with thin or nonexistent credit files finally gain access to affordable credit.

“It can help people be more financially successful,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian. “It can help them break out of the kind of predatory lending that you see people stuck in – not because they’re bad credit risks, but because they don’t have a traditional credit history.”

One day, it could even help people who do have a robust credit history gain access to cheaper loans, he says. “It may help lenders make better decisions and it may help people become better qualified for the credit they need, or want.”

Already, many alternative lenders, such as SoFi and Earnest, offer inexpensive loans in exchange for nontraditional data, such as bank statements and education history.

What about the accuracy of nontraditional data?

Personally, I wouldn’t mind divulging more details about myself if I thought it would help me qualify for a less expensive loan.

Like many people, I’d be even more willing to give up additional information about myself if I felt like I had some control over that information.

According to Experian, most lenders think that people would be more willing to share nontraditional data with lenders if they could turn those data sources on and off.

“We know that consumers are much more willing to share information if they know it will benefit them,” Griffin says.

But as alternative data continues to grow more popular, I’ve also wondered: If lenders use nontraditional information to evaluate my creditworthiness, how will I know that information is accurate?

If I’m not turned down for a loan, will I even know what sources of information the lender used to evaluate my creditworthiness?

How Experian handles alternative data

I recently asked Griffin if I would know what nontraditional data was used in calculating my credit score. I wanted to know how the use of alternative payments histories would affect the financial hygiene habits that we’ve all been taught to protect our information.

For example, I know that I can monitor my credit information for accuracy by regularly pulling my credit reports from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax through annualcreditreport.com, but what if lenders are sourcing data from hundreds of different providers? There are dozens of consumer reporting agencies in the U.S.

By law, you can request your individual report from any consumer reporting agency and dispute any information that is inaccurate, but it would be logistically impossible to regularly monitor every agency collecting your information. (If you’re curious about the many different consumer reporting agencies out there, check out the CFPB’s lengthy list of companies.)

Griffin said that if a lender is using alternative data provided by Experian for a credit decision, then that data will show up in your Experian credit report. You’ll also be provided with that data if you’re turned down for a loan.

If you find a mistake with the data provided, you can dispute that data just as you would dispute incorrect information about a loan.

But not all lenders source their information through a larger credit bureau – and they’re not always very transparent about the information they use. Some alternative lenders are especially secretive about the information that they use to score borrowers.

My take: More data is better, if it’s accurate

Personally, I would be happy to see my cellphone and utility payments show up on the big three credit reports I already monitor regularly. And I even would be willing to directly provide sensitive information, such as my transaction history, to certain lenders if I thought it would help me get a better loan.

But I’m not wild about the idea of lenders using alternative sources of information about me if I don’t know what they’re looking at and where that information came from.

Alternative data can be a useful tool for gaining more information about borrowers, but I also worry that it could sometimes do more harm than good if borrowers don’t have a reasonable way to regularly monitor all the information that lenders are using.

See related: CFPB takes a closer look at alternative credit data, Artificial intelligence shines new light on ‘credit invisibles’

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  • Dennis Schrader

    I didn’t realize but I received a letter from Chase requesting to close my account in 60 days due to inactivity. I’ve had the card for 11 years and good credit so I decided to use it. Today, Chase closed the card although I used it right after I got the letter. I spoke with the manager and she said there was no way to open up my account. I won’t and can’t use this card ever again and I definitely won’t be doing future business with Chase. Further, I wasn’t given a number to speak to someone for possible help. I was told that I need to write or fax to the Executive Office, 3415 Vision Drive, Columbus, OH 43219-6009, Mailstop OH-4-7120. Thank you for the horrific customer service Chase.