Sandra Cortez went to a Denver dealership in 2005 to purchase a car. But she drove off with the knowledge that her credit report had falsely flagged her as a terrorist or narcotics trafficker, setting off a seven-year effort to clear her name.
Cortez was expecting a good finance deal for a new vehicle after running her credit prior to her visit to the dealer. During a routine credit check, Cortez found herself detained at the dealership with the finance manager threatening to call the FBI after her TransUnion credit report mistakenly identified her as the purported Colombian narcoterrorist Sandra Cortes Quintera.
"The credit reporting agencies are making horrible matching mistakes because they're not using identifying criteria to make sure it's the right person," her attorney James Francis told ABC News. For individuals with a common name, "they're not doing anything to eliminate the positive matches," he added. Sandra's "name does not appear on the OFAC list. TransUnion was the only credit reporting agency that."
On the same day, Cortez received an apology from the dealership about the mistake and did drive off with her dream car, but she would spend years fighting to correct the inaccurate information.
When she requested her personal credit report, the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control alert did not appear on the copy she received. But, in her hands from the dealership was the report seen only by businesses, which had the alert.
Just how many times this has happened and to how many people is unclear because the consumer is typically unaware of these added alerts that only the credit-grantor sees.
"This was the first case that we had seen like that and that made sense because it was 2005 and the Patriot Act was passed in 2001," said Francis, the consumer law attorney who represented Cortez.
Since he filed suit and won a judgment against TransUnion, Francis says his law office has been contacted by more than 10 people who have experienced similar problems.
"It's a growing problem," said Francis. "They're selling this product to the credit reporting industry for an additional fee and they're not doing anything to be careful to make sure the person on this list matches."
He says credit agencies must do a better job of comparing data. "What's ironic here if there's anything you don't want to [mistakenly] describe someone as being a terrorist or narcotics trafficker," said Francis.
The OFAC says it doesn't track false positives made by third parties for placement on the government's list for terrorists, international drug traffickers and others associated with weapons of mass destruction.
"The Office of Foreign Assets Control's (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN List) is a publicly available resource that is intended to aid financial institutions and the general public in compliance with U.S. sanctions," a Treasury official told ABC News.
"In some cases outside parties have been known to incorrectly identify persons as being on the SDN List. If someone feels they have been incorrectly identified they can contact OFAC," a Treasury official told ABC News.
Cortez, after failing to get the error fixed, took the credit reporting agency, TransUnion, to court alleging that it was "reporting derogatory and inaccurate statements and information" and had "repeatedly disputed the inaccurate information."
The suit states, "the inaccurate information consists of statements that cannot be attributed" to Cortez. In the suit obtained by ABC News, Cortez alleged defamation, negligence and invasion of privacy.
A spokesperson for the credit agency told ABC News in an email, "TransUnion does not comment on litigation matters."
Cortez was awarded $150,000 after fighting out her battle in court for years, according to court papers. The grandmother still had the alert mistakenly attached to her file up to a week before the trial, says her attorney.
"I didn't want to sue anybody," said Cortez. "I went directly to TransUnion and gave them three opportunities to fix this [problem]. I just wanted it off my credit report."
She continued, "they ignored me, they called me frivolous, and they wanted me to just leave them alone."
"I'm not satisfied with OFAC. I'm not happy with the credit bureau. I'm happy there was a precedent that was set," Cortez told ABC News. "I don't feel people should have to sue to get correct information on their credit report."