40 Million Mistakes: Is your credit report accurate?

A government study indicates as many as 40 million consumers have a mistake on their credit report and Steve Kroft finds it's hard to get them fixed

[Employee at credit reporting agency: Yes, Mr. Kroft.

Steve Kroft: Okay, thank you.]

Besides the toll-free number, they also give you a post office box address where you can send a letter and documents supporting your claim. In each case, it's extremely unlikely that anyone with the authority to resolve your dispute will ever actually see it.

Ask Sandra Cortez, a California accountant, whose credit report confused her with an international drug trafficker. It took her five years to get it fixed.

Or David Smith, a retired Army officer whose credit report listed a bankruptcy that wasn't his and triggered a foreclosure proceeding against his house in South Carolina. He is still dealing with the fallout.

Or Judy Thomas, a trauma nurse with a horror story worthy of Hitchcock or Kafka.

Judy Thomas: There's nobody to go to. There's nobody. You just keep making phone calls and you just keep writing disputes and you keep sending them your Social Security number. And they don't care.

Thomas, who manages two medical centers near Cleveland, says it all began in 1999 when she went shopping for a new dress and applied for a store credit card to get a 15 percent discount. She was denied.

Steve Kroft: Was that the first time you'd ever been denied credit?

Judy Thomas: Yes, very first time.

Steve Kroft: Ever?

Judy Thomas: Ever, ever.

But certainly not the last. It became a regular occurrence. The personal credit reports she got from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax were all clean, and without blemish. Yet she kept getting rejected and couldn't find out why.

Judy Thomas: I would get a consumer report and it would look fine. I would go to the bank. And they would tell me, "Oh no, you have all this debt." But no one would tell me what was on there.

Steve Kroft: They wouldn't tell you what the debt was? And they wouldn't give you a copy of the report that they had.

Judy Thomas: No. No.

It took Judy Thomas several years to discover what almost no one knows -- that the credit reports the agencies send to you are different than the ones that they sell to banks, merchants and mortgage brokers. And she only found that out when a loan officer left her file on his desk and walked out of the room.

Steve Kroft: And what did you see?

Judy Thomas: I saw debt from Utah Medical Center. I saw debt from a veterinarian clinic in Utah. I saw collections for a Judith Kendall.

Steve Kroft: Judith Kendall, not Judy Thomas?

Judy Thomas: Correct.