By Jathon Sapsford 21 August 2003 The Wall Street Journal Houston -- J.P. MORGAN CHASE & Co. has spent the past two years telling the rest of the financial world that David Jokinen is dead. Since learning of the demise of the Texas businessman in April 2001, the nation's second-largest bank has sent repeated death reports about Mr. Jokinen to the three big credit-reporting agencies, which in turn have used that information in reports it doles out to mortgage brokers, credit-card issuers, car dealers and insurance companies. The trouble is, Mr. Jokinen, 67 years old, is very much alive, a fact that J.P. Morgan finally acknowledged last month after a frustrated Mr. Jokinen showed up at a Houston bank branch, with a local television crew in tow, to shame the bank into correcting the mistake. His two years in banking purgatory and the impact it has had on his financial life underscore how complex -- and intertwined â?? consumer finance has become. To reduce the red tape involved in credit decisions, lenders now farm out much of their decision-making, relying instead on credit scores, which are numerical grades based on the raw material found in credit reports. It amounts to an enormous and powerful honor system in which competing lenders share information with each other through the credit bureaus, including Experian Information Solutions Inc., Marmon Group's TransUnion LLC and Equifax Inc. The goal is to speed up credit decisions while limiting the flow of money to thieves or maxed-out consumers. The credit bureaus say processes do exist for consumers to correct mistakes, and insist they clear up most problems without much difficulty. Mr. Jokinen says he availed himself of these processes, only to find the mistake would reappear. The bureaus told him that since the bank kept repeating the error in its regular reporting to the credit bureaus, he would ultimately have to get the lender to fix the problem. "We receive up to two billion data pieces a month on 200 million files. We do our best to assure accuracy. Unfortunately, errors do occur," said Jeffrey Junkas, a spokesman for TransUnion. Given the size of the American financial system, bankers say the system works remarkably well. The vast repository of information about consumers, which allows easy credit checks from a growing variety of lenders, has fueled an explosion in the availability of consumer credit. Over the past decade, consumer lending at banks has more than doubled to about $2.7 trillion. That number would be twice as big if it included nonbank lenders such as car makers, retailers or specialty finance companies such as General Electric Co.'s GE Capital Corp. But Mr. Jokinen's experience, and a handful of separate cases in which consumers were mistakenly reported as deceased, shows that once a mistake is introduced, it can be repeated over and over, ricocheting around the financial system. He says the constant reminders take an emotional toll. "It was becoming ghoulish," he says. "The whole thing was starting to send chills down my spine." Mr. Jokinen found it next to impossible to make contact with all the points generating and regenerating the error. "Once the mistake is made, it is the consumer who has to convince the system to fix it, and sometimes that can be very hard to do," said Jeffrey B. Fisher, a credit analyst at Russell Van Beustring P.C., a Houston law firm that represents Mr. Jokinen. "You're guilty until you prove yourself innocent." In a statement from the bank's New York headquarters, J.P. Morgan spokeswoman Charlotte Gilbert-Biro said the bank "processes tens of thousands of deceased customer notifications each year. The overwhelming majority are processed correctly. . . . We have apologized to Mr. Jokinen." Mr. Jokinen's problems began when the health of his mother, Catherine, began to fail in 1999. Noticing her tremors, Mr. Jokinen and his mother agreed to put his name on her credit-card accounts so he could sign for her if she was unable. Her condition worsened, and in April 2001, she died at age 95. J.P. Morgan, his bank for a decade or more, has told Mr. Jokinen that according to its records, somebody at the bank inadvertently confused him with his mother when he reported her as dead. Mr. Jokinen discovered the mistake in October 2001 when he tried to refinance his house. A broker told him that two credit bureaus, Equifax and Experian, reported him as dead. When he traced the bad information to J.P. Morgan, the bank admitted the error, apologized and promised to contact the credit bureaus. But the issue refused to die. In December of the same year, Mr. Jokinen was shopping for a new car for his wife, and settled on a Lexus. The car dealer, though, said he couldn't give Mr. Jokinen credit for the $32,000 car because the third big credit bureau, TransUnion, also had reported him as deceased. When Mr. Jokinen explained the earlier mix-up, the dealer still wanted proof. Mr. Jokinen had him call his accountant, who gave a physical description of Mr. Jokinen over the phone, which the dealer confirmed. While he was able to buy the car, the snafu still cost him. Instead of the 0.9% financing rate advertised, the salesman said he was still "taking a risk" with Mr. Jokinen, despite the accountant's word, and upped the interest rate to 6%. Over and over it went, as Mr. Jokinen continued to bump into his credit-history ghost. Still trying to refinance his home a year and a half after his initial attempt, for instance, Mr. Jokinen was asked to come up with a letter from the local Social Security Administration proving he was still alive. Mr. Jokinen went to the local office, but the clerks had no idea how to go about writing such a document. Finally, a top official in the Houston Social Security office consulted superiors in Washington, and got clearance to issue a letter that would allow Mr. Jokinen, after nearly two years after trying, to refinance a mortgage. The letter included a crucial line: "Mr. David A. Jokinen is not deceased on any of our records." After 12 written requests, countless phone calls, and 27 months spent trying to clear his name, Mr. Jokinen counts the ordeal as among the most difficult things he has ever experienced. Mr. Jokinen, an entrepreneur and real-estate developer with a city-planning degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who has also attended Harvard University, still has neat piles of documents in his home office, ammunition in his fight to clear his financial name. "I would see him up late nights, sitting in his office, going over his credit reports," says his wife, M.J. Maday-Jokinen. "There's not that much that gets his goat, but this did." He figures the mix-up has cost him at least $250,000. That claim -- which he has hired lawyers to look into collecting -- includes estimates for lost income after potential investors backed out of deals because the deceased notice on his credit report seemed fishy. He claims he also lost money because the problem kept him from switching to cheaper credit cards and delayed his refinancing to a mortgage that charged less interest. Mr. Jokinen says the biggest insults were the solicitations he kept receiving from J.P. Morgan -- even as it was reporting him as dead -- for new credit cards or home-equity loans. In October 2002, he received a letter from J.P. Morgan addressed to his mother, who had died a year earlier. "Thank you for carrying a Chase Prestige Credit Card," the letter stated -- and then said the bank would start charging a $39 monthly fee to maintain all the card's benefits unless the deceased Mrs. Jokinen called and canceled it. In the end, it took a bit of showmanship for Mr. Jokinen to get his problem fixed. Last month, he showed up at his Houston branch of J.P. Morgan with a local television-news team. As the cameras rolled, Mr. Jokinen asked to see the manager. He handed him a sheaf of documents detailing the mistake. "You people have declared me dead," he told the manager. "I'm quite alive. You can check my pulse if you want to." The manager used the sheaf of documents to cover his face. But the bank finally looked into the problem, and assured him they would fix it. Mr. Jokinen, having heard such assurances before, demanded a written letter. The bank complied, and assured him in a letter dated Aug. 1 that the problem had been fixed. The bank, having checked with the credit bureaus again this week, reiterated that the issue had been ironed out. On Monday, Mr. Jokinen went to a local Radio Shack outlet to buy a digital camera. The store, without providing any details, said it would not extend him credit because of a problem on his credit report.