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It is “perhaps one of the most powerful and private databases of American’s personal information ever created, containing 190 million employment and salary records, covering more than one-third of US adults.” That comes from the opening paragraph of a recent story by Bob Sullivan, author of the very popular blog The Red Tape Chronicles.

I interviewed him recently about what he learned while researching this largely unknown database. He really got my attention when he started talking about how debt collectors use this information. At Credit.com we’ve received numerous complaints from consumers who are being called at work by debt collectors, and this may be the way they are tracking down debtors on the job. Following is an excerpt from that interview, edited slightly for clarity.

Gerri: That’s definitely an attention-getter, this database that’s collecting all this information. Tell us about what it is and what consumers need to know about it.

Bob: It’s called The Work Number and you can see that at TheWorkNumber.com. Despite the fact that it contains information on at least one-third of U.S. adults and probably more, virtually no one has heard of it, even though you have heard of the company who owns it. It’s Equifax, which is one of the nation’s major credit reporting agencies.

The way The Work Number works is that tens of thousands of companies — 20,000 to be exact — sign up with The Work Number and they use (it for) employment verification. When you had a job at a big company and you apply for job at a new company, you put on your resume that you used to work at Company A. Company A hates getting those phone calls where they say, “Hey, can you talk to us about Bob Sullivan? Was he a good worker or did he show up on time?” And so now they outsource that employment verification to The Work Number.

And The Work Number for a couple of dollars says, “Yes, Bob worked here and there.” That’s all very above board, and obviously even a benefit to some consumers. You can also use this to verify you have a job when you’re applying for a rental house or even in some cases to get a mortgage.

But the other side of the story is that in order for The Work Number to work, these companies have to supply Equifax with weekly salary and employment information. And in many cases, the companies allow The Work Number to tap directly into their HR database. And so that means The Work Number has this incredible work history on millions of Americans, literally exactly how much money you made last week, (or) how much money you made in a week in 2008.

And it has even more. It has other HR information like whether or not you had health insurance and who your provider is, whether or not there are any unemployment claims and that kind of thing. It’s a huge database and makes everyone nervous because, first of all, we were unaware of it, and second of all, it’s in the hands of a credit bureau. And credit bureaus, as we know, are in the business of selling information about us.

Gerri: I want to clarify, is The Work Number a number like your Social Security number, or is this just a name for this database?

Bob: No. It’s just the name of the company that Equifax acquired six years ago. And by The Work Number, they just mean it’s the phone number you can call to verify whether someone worked somewhere.

Gerri: What do they do with this (information) and what kind of protections are there for consumers?

Bob: Well, unfortunately, Equifax wouldn’t tell me what they do with the data. They wouldn’t submit to an interview for the story that I did; they did send me a statement. They will say that The Work Number is designed specifically so that employers can know whether or not someone has a job or whether or not someone had a job in the past.

But as I am digging through various brochures and marketing materials, I found that some of the data that is in The Work Number database is resold by Equifax and it’s marketed heavily to debt collectors, for example. So one of the ways a debt collector can track where someone is, when they want to find (where the person) who owes them money is, they can call Equifax and say, “Is this person working here or there?” In fact you can upload a whole bunch of names and Equifax will tell you, “Hey, Bob Sullivan just pops up and is working in this place.”

They also resell it to other financial services companies, so for example, if you are a mortgage company and one of your consumers who has a mortgage with you loses their job and suddenly doesn’t have their income, Equifax will tell the mortgage company, “Here’s a heads up so you can proactively manage risk.” (It’s a phrase that they use.) So your mortgage company, when you lose your job, will find out before you even tell them — and before you even miss a payment.

And they also can use this the other way. They can use this to market new products and financial products to someone who’s gotten a raise or otherwise their income has increased.

So Equifax was quite clear to me that they do not give specific salary information to debt collectors. So they say the debt collector can’t call up The Work Number and say, “How much does Bob Sullivan make? We’re trying to collect from him.” But they will tell that person whether or not I have a job and where that job is, and they will tell other kinds of companies how much money I make.

Gerri: What kinds of protections are there for consumers? Obviously, this is sensitive important information just like your credit report.

Bob: Yes, this is very sensitive information and in fact it’s my assertion in the story that salary information — even in the time when we seem to share everything on Facebook and where we’ve become sort of immune to how much companies know about us — salary is very sensitive. No one would send out in a tweet or post on Facebook how much money they make. So this whole database is a big surprise to almost everyone.

You do have some protections, in fact. The Work Number is considered a credit report, so just like with your credit report, you can request an annual disclosure from Equifax for free. Just go to TheWorkNumber.com and fill out the form. It is not as easy as getting your annual credit report, however it works very similarly. And then you can see what they have on you, which I really recommend because it’s quite striking. I saw one of this person (profiled in my story) and it was 22 pages, week by week for almost 10 years, of how much this woman had earned from various companies including overtime and all of that.

So you can see what they have on you. Then, of course, when you see a mistake, which can be important, you can have it corrected. There are plenty of stories of folks that use The Work Number to verify their employment and then find out that maybe (their information was) entered at their job at one level and they got a raise, and got a new title, but that hadn’t been updated. And that might hurt them in future employment prospects.

You can try to fix the errors, just like a credit report, but you do not have control over who has used the information. Just like with credit reports, basically any creditor you’ve ever worked with, any credit card you’ve applied for, any bank you’ve worked with, they all have access to this data because somewhere in the agreement you have with them you granted it.

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