How To Properly Erase A Hard Drive
Verification Messages to Both New & Old E-Mail Addresses (Part Two)

Is It Wise For Credit Bureaus To Outsource To Foreign Call Center Firms? (Part 4)

Prior posts discussed offshore outsourcing about TransUnion and TrueCredit. Laurie has problems with TransUnion's credit monitoring service, TrueCredit, and support from its call center. Laurie is worried that if TransUnion (and TrueCredit) outsource their operations and her credit information, she won't have the same protections she would have otherwise -- since data security laws vary in other countries. I'd promised Laurie that I'd try to find some answers to her questions. So far, I've learned that both TransUnion and TrueCredit, its credit monitoring service, both offshore outsource.

To learn more about offshore outsourcing within the credit bureau industry, I reviewed the 10K document Equifax filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Equifax is publicly-traded while TransUnion is privately-held. The S.E.C. requires public companies to submit certain filing documents. Both collect consumers credit information, sell credit reports to potential lenders, and operate credit monitoring services. A publicly-traded company's 10K filing usually tells more about its operations than its Annual Report document.

A view of Equifax's operations would provide a perspective about TransUnion, since both companies perform similar activities. To stay competitive, TransUnion would attempt to maintain a similar cost structure to its competitors -- Experian and Equifax.

From the Equifax 10K document:

"Upon our acquisition of TALX Corporation, or TALX, on May 15, 2007, we became a leading provider of payroll-related and human resources business process outsourcing services in the United States of America, or U.S. We currently operate in three global regions: North America (U.S., Canada and Costa Rica), Europe (the United Kingdom, or U.K., the Republic of Ireland, Spain and Portugal) and Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay). Of the countries in which we operate, 73% of our revenue was generated in the U.S. during 2007."

Some interesting information about the business risks Equifax sees and how that risk relates to outsourcing activities:

"Our ability to provide reliable service largely depends on the efficient and uninterrupted operation of our computer network systems and data centers. Some of these systems have been outsourced to third-party providers. Any significant interruptions could severely harm our business and reputation and result in a loss of customers."

If you read further into the 10K document, Equifax lists its contractual obligations which include outsourcing expenses:

Payments Due By: Total Less Than 1 Year 1 To 3 Years 3 To 5 Years Thereafter
Data processing, outsourcing agreements and other purchase obligations* ($millions) $305.5 $88.5 $103.3 $90.2 $23.5
* These agreements primarily represent our minimum contractual obligations for services that we outsource associated with our computer data processing operations and related functions, and certain administrative functions. These agreements expire between 2008 and 2014.

The document also states:

"Data Processing, Outsourcing Services and Other Agreements. We have separate agreements with International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM, Acxiom, GenPact, TCS and others to outsource portions of our computer data processing operations, applications development, maintenance and related functions and to provide certain other administrative and operational services. The agreements expire between 2008 and 2013. The estimated aggregate minimum contractual obligation remaining under these agreements is approximately $305.0 million as of December 31, 2007, with no future year expected to exceed approximately $90.0 million... In certain circumstances (e.g., a change in control or for our convenience), we may terminate these data processing and outsourcing agreements, and, in doing so, certain of these agreements require us to pay a significant penalty."

I wonder exactly what's in "related functions and to provide certain other administrative and operational services." That sounds like call centers. Equifax's outsource agreement with IBM:

"Our data processing outsourcing agreement with IBM was renegotiated in 2003 for a ten-year term. Under this agreement (which covers our operations in North America, Europe, Brazil and Chile), we have outsourced our mainframe and midrange operations, help desk service and desktop support functions, and the operation of our voice and data networks. The scope of such services varies by location. During 2007, 2006 and 2005, we paid $115.0 million, $112.1 million and $120.8 million, respectively, for these services. The estimated future minimum contractual obligation at December 31, 2007 under this agreement is approximately $255.0 million, with no year expected to exceed approximately $55.0 million. We may terminate certain portions of this agreement without penalty in the event that IBM is in material breach of the terms of the agreement."

If my friend, Laurie, decides to switch credit monitoring services... drop TrueCredit and sign up for another credit monitoring service by Experian or Equifax, she can reasonably expect that they outsource also. Like TransUnion, Equifax also operates several credit monitoring services, with varying features.

The economic reasons for companies to outsource work are understandable: to manage costs and stay profitable in a competitive business environment. My point is this: should they? Is it wise to offshore outsource work involving sensitive financial data? Is it wise to do so if the company can't provide a high-quality call center operation?

I had to dig deep to find some information about the company's offshore outsourcing activities, since this data isn't readily available in the company's web site. Is it wise to do so without informing consumers? Is it wise to do so if consumers prefer otherwise?

The three national credit bureaus assume that the lowest-cost for credit information is best for consumers. Laurie's concerns suggest otherwise, that consumers want both protection and a reasonable price; not the absolute lowest price. A service with a low price and no data security isn't worth much. Consumers now realize that bad things happen: data breaches. There is always risk. And, one can reasonably expect bad things to happen with offshore outsourced credit information just like data breaches within the USA.

There has to be a balance between a company's need to manage costs, and consumers' need to trust the companies they do business with. Consumers now know today that companies suffer data breaches. Some consumers know first-hand the expense, hassle, and grief involved with restoring their information and credit after a criminal has hacked their financial accounts.

I'll bet that when given a choice, consumers prefer that their credit and financial data is kept within their country's borders, rather than being transmitted around the globe. Laurie's concerns reflect this. It all goes to the level of risk people are willing to accept. Experts have identified the data security risks of offshore outsourcing. The fewer places credit and financial data are transmitted, the less chances for bad things to happen. More importantly, it is unclear about exactly which country laws govern the protection of consumer credit and financial data. It is unclear which country laws govern the notification when the company (e.g., TransUnion, True Credit) suffers a data breach by an outsource call center vendor in another country.

That data breach in another country may never happen, but if and when it does, consumers have a right to know - promptly.

What do you think? Take our poll today or submit a comment below.

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