I made my first telephone call in the 1950s by turning a crank on a wooden telephone box. Some neighbors on the party line always listened; in that small ranching community of rural South Dakota, everybody knew everybody's business. Perhaps for that reason, most of us dealt honestly with each other. We paid cash for what we needed, and yes, we sealed agreements with a handshake.
Now that I own the family ranch, I continue to operate, like my remaining neighbors, on the principles I learned in childhood. All around me, realtors are selling former ranches for home sites, basing their pitch partly on our community's values. I recently learned those values have become extinct.
My education began after my partner bought me a newfangled cell phone for emergencies, since I often drive to the ranch alone. After a year, even though we switched the phone to my name, the bills kept coming in addressed to him. I kept complaining, and the company kept promising the contract would be changed.
Then came a letter from the company saying I was not a good risk because I have a poor credit rating. Shocked, I protested: I have no debts; in fact, I have never used a credit card. An independent Westerner, I've always believed my finances were my business. I buy what I can afford and always with cash. My honesty and integrity are my bond.
During the past three years, I've learned that my integrity counts for nothing in the mostly urban New Credit World. Paying cash and sealing deals with handshakes leave no "paper trail" for snoopers who make money by selling information. To my dismay, I also discovered that the reports I obtained from the major credit-reporting agencies contained incorrect information. Repeatedly I documented who I am, and where and how I have lived for fifty-some years, furnishing copies of documents that should be private. Though I could prove I have no debts, my credit rating remained poor.
In a world where information can be sold and everyone suspects everyone, my actions seem devious. The only way to get a credit rating is to buy on credit, something I resist after watching friends-and the nation - slide easily into debt. I acquired - and promptly paid-new bills from the dentist who repaired the damage I did by grinding my teeth in fury.
But I am not alone. Right now, credit-reporting agencies are collecting information on you, and selling it to companies with which you do business. If you act on your right to keep these companies from acquiring information, they record that as a really devious act.
After years of avoiding and cursing these companies, I'll admit they have improved; they now provide information about consumer rights -because laws force them to do so. But Westerners who rely on honesty and cash will have no credit rating, and thus no power, as long as businesses regard consuming with credit as necessary to financial stability.
I believe choosing to buy with cash is my right. But honesty isn't enough for credit-reporting agencies. If you don't borrow money or buy on time, you can't be normal, and you don't have a credit rating. I also arouse suspicions through other choices I thought were personal. Because I write at home, my telephone number is unlisted, as is my street address. Such privacy is not the Credit World Way. Some transactions-buying airline tickets, renting cars and motel rooms-are easier with a credit card, so I do have a debit card on my checking account. That's another questionable fact in my dossier of wrong moves.
Information is power. Westerners who believe it's our right to pay in cash and keep our business private owe it to ourselves to protect our right to be fiscally ornery. Be informed. Learn what credit reporting agencies know about you, and protest if that information is wrong. Protest the way credit ratings are figured.
If we don't pay attention, country values will be as outmoded as that crank telephone, and integrity won't get you in the door without a credit card. Contacting one credit reporting agency will lead you to others; you might start with Equifax Credit Information Services, Inc., P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta GA 30374;1-800-685-1111; http://www.equifax.com.
Editor's note: Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She divides her time between a ranch near Hermosa, South Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming.