Fact Sheet 6:
How Private Is My Credit Report?


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Copyright © 1992 - 2014
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted November 1992
Revised April 2014

 

  1. Introduction and Summary
  2. Credit Reporting Basics: What's in a Credit Report? What Is a Credit Score?
  3. Accessing the Credit Report: Who Can See What? How Can I Get a Copy?
  4. Dealing with Negative Information and Errors
  5. Uses of Credit Reports for Marketing: What Is and Is Not Allowed?
  6. Enforcing Your Rights: Filing Suit and Complaining to Government Agencies
  7. Investigative Consumer Reports: Employment, Insurance, and Rental Housing
  8. Resources

1. Introduction and Summary

Credit reports are a gold mine of information about consumers. They contain your Social Security number, date of birth, current and previous addresses, telephone number (including unlisted numbers), credit payment status, employment information and even legal information.

Ordering your credit report once a year and knowing your credit reporting rights are among the most important steps you can take to safeguard your privacy The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and state laws restrict who has access to your sensitive credit information and what uses can be made of it. These federal and state laws also set the standards for the operation of consumer reporting agencies, called "CRAs" or "credit bureaus."

There are three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion:

You will sometimes read about a fourth credit bureau called Innovis  (www.innovis.com) and another bureau called CoreLogic  (www.corelogic.com/) which tracks and issues reports on data not typically found in traditional credit reports.  

To summarize your credit reporting rights, you have the right to:

2. Credit Reporting Basics:
What's in a Credit Report? What is a Credit Score?

What is in my credit report?

Your credit report is actually a credit history. It is created by data about you from many different sources. Companies that have granted you credit make regular reports about your accounts to the three main CRAs: Equifax, Experian (formerly TRW), and TransUnion. If you are late in making payments, those to whom you owe money such as utilities, hospitals, landlords and others may report this information to the CRA. Your bank may inform the CRA if you overdraw your account or do not make credit card, auto loan, or mortgage payments on time. Your credit report may also contain information about delinquent child support payments.

Your credit report contains your name and any name variations, your address, and previous addresses, telephone number (including unlisted number), Social Security number, year and month of birth, and employment information. Information in your report also includes matters of public record such as civil judgments, tax liens and bankruptcies.

You have the right to know who has inquired about your credit file or has requested your report over the last six months. Reports you receive must also include the identity of all such inquiries. Inquiries related to pre-approved offers, as well as your own inquiries, are not available to credit grantors. However, they are included in credit reports that you order for yourself.

The FCRA allows CRAs to report records of convictions of crime. However, it is not the practice of any of the three main CRAs to report criminal convictions on credit reports. Such information may, however, be reported in connection with an employer background check, an application for automobile insurance, or an application to rent a house or apartment.

For a guide to understanding how to read your credit report, see "The Ultimate Credit Report Cheat Sheet".

For more on these other types of consumer reports, read our guides:

Can a credit reporting agency deny my application for credit?

CRAs do not make decisions regarding a consumer's creditworthiness. Rather, the CRA compiles reports of what your file contains and passes that along to the potential credit grantor. Credit decisions are, in fact, generally made based upon a number of factors that comprise a "score." Inquiries made in connection with your applications for credit may also be a factor in your score. If, for example, you have applied for several credit cards or loans in a short period of time, this may result in a lower score. Inquiries made in connection with pre-approved credit offers or those you make yourself do not result in a reduced score.

How do credit scores affect my application?

The practice of credit scoring is widespread and growing. Until recent years, consumers have seldom gained access to their credit score and have not been able to learn the factors that went into the scoring process. But a 2000 law in California gave mortgage applicants a right to see their credit score (California Civil Code 1785.10, 1785.15-1780.20). Since then, the credit industry voluntarily loosened its grip on the credit score. Further, the FACTA amendments to the FCRA give you new rights to know your credit score as well as an explanation of the factors that determined the score.

To learn more about the topic of credit scoring, read:

Is there anything that cannot be in my credit report? How long can information be reported?

Certain pieces of personal information cannot be in your credit report:

  • Medical information (unless you give your consent).
  • Notice of bankruptcy (Chapter 11) that is more than 10 years old.
  • Debts (including delinquent child support payments) that are more than seven years old.
  • Age, marital status, or race (if the request is from a current or prospective employer).

Certain kinds of information may remain on your report indefinitely. If, for example, you are applying for credit, insurance or employment above the dollar limits noted below, information can be reported beyond the usual seven- to 10-year deadlines.

  • A credit transaction involving, or which may be expected to involve, an amount of $150,000 or more.
  • Information about a job with a salary of more than $75,000.
  • An application for credit or life insurance for more than $150,000.
  • Tax liens that are not paid.

For additional information on the length of time that negative information can remain on your credit report, read the "Ask Max" section of the Experian web site, www.experian.com/ask_max/deleting_information.html.

3. Accessing the Credit Report: Who Can See What?
How Can I Get a Copy?

Who has access to my report?

Anyone with a "legitimate business need" can gain access to your credit history, including:

  • Those considering granting you credit.
  • Landlords.
  • Insurance companies.
  • Employers and potential employers (but only with your consent).
  • Companies with which you have a credit account for account monitoring purposes.
  • Those considering your application for a government license or benefit if the agency is required to consider your financial status.
  • A state or local child support enforcement agency.
  • Any government agency (limited usually to your name, address, former addresses, current and former employers).

Generally, only an employer or prospective employer needs your written consent to obtain a report. An exception is Vermont where any user needs your oral or written consent. In practice, most potential creditors ask for your permission to review your report. Your permission is not required when inquiries are made in connection with a pre-approved credit offer.

Can I find out what is in my credit report?

Absolutely. Your right of access is mandated by federal and state laws. We strongly recommend that you review your credit reports on a regular basis in order to check for accuracy, especially in this age of rampant identity theft.

Credit reports are used to make a number of critical decisions that go far beyond your ability to obtain credit cards and loans. These include renting an apartment, seeking employment, and obtaining insurance. You will want to make sure that your credit reports are accurate and up to date.

Free Annual Credit Reports.

Thanks to the federal FACT Act, consumers can get a free copy of their credit report annually from each of the three credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion (FCRA sec. 612 (a)(1)(A)&(B)).

To order your free reports, you can call the official toll-free number, (877) 322-8228. You can also go online to www.annualcreditreport.com where you can order your reports directly. Or you can print out the form and mail your request. http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/pdf-0093-annual-report-request-form.pdf

A word of caution: Do not attempt to obtain your free annual credit reports through an Internet search for terms like "free credit report" or "free credit check." You could land on a site that sells credit reports along with fee-based credit monitoring plans and a variety of other products and services.

For more information about access to free credit reports, see the Federal Trade Commission's Facts for Consumers at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre34.shtm.

You are not required to order all three credit reports at the same time. If you wish, you can stagger your free reports over the course of a year by ordering one report every four months. This way, you are monitoring your credit reports on an ongoing basis. But if you are an identity theft victim or are shopping for credit, it is best to order all three at one time.

There are certain times when you are entitled to a free copy for special circumstances. The new rule that gives you free access once a year does not affect your ability to get a free report in the situations listed below. You are entitled to a free credit report:

  • If you have been denied credit (you must request a copy within 60 days)
  • If you are unemployed and intend to apply for employment in the next 60 days
  • If you are on public welfare assistance
  • If you have reason to believe your file contains inaccurate information due to fraud or identity theft
  • If an adverse decision related to your employment has been made based in whole or in part on information contained in the report
  • If your report has been revised based upon an investigation you request

Further, the laws in seven states give residents the ability to obtain credit reports free of charge. This is over and above the free annual credit report available nationwide through the FACT Act. These states are: Colorado, Georgia (2 per year), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont.  To read more about your rights in these 7 states see  http://money.msn.com/credit-rating/get-extra-credit-reports-for-free.aspx

Can I buy a my credit report from other companies?

Yes. You may also obtain a copy of your credit report from companies who contract with the CRAs to sell their products. Many of these products are available on the Internet. Some companies sell a merged version of all three reports. They also provide credit monitoring services that alert you to activity on your report, such as any new credit accounts, the placement of negative information, inquiries from creditors, and so on.

Ask yourself if you really need to spend money to obtain a copy of your credit report, since free reports are available nationwide from the major credit bureaus. Be careful to examine these companies and their offers carefully. Do your homework before signing on the dotted line.

And do not fall for the promises of "credit repair services" and "credit doctors" who advertise on television and on the Internet. The vast majority of such services are ineffective, even illegal. Additional information on credit repair services is provided in the next section.

 4. Dealing with Negative Information and Errors

How will I know if there is negative information in my report?

The best way to determine if you have negative information in your credit report is to order a copy and check it carefully. For a thorough review, you should check with all three CRAs since there may be some variations in the file each CRA maintains on you. This should be done at least once a year. Because the crime of identity theft is on the rise, we recommend that you check at least one of your credit reports every four months.

In addition to taking advantage of your free annual credit reports, you should also check your credit report when you know it is going to be used to make important decisions, such as applying for an automobile or home loan, renting an apartment, or applying for a job. Reports should be ordered at least one to two months before you apply for credit or intend to rent. At these crucial times, you do not want to be surprised to find that your report contains negative information, especially if that information is inaccurate.

A creditor has the duty to report only accurate, complete, and updated information to a CRA. For example, if you close an account voluntarily, your creditor must report this fact in order to distinguish it from an account that is closed for nonpayment. If you disagree with a creditor's report of negative information, the creditor must put a notice of that dispute in your file before reporting to the CRA.

What can I do if there are errors in my report?

There is no denying that errors can and do appear in credit reports. There are two main reasons errors may appear on your credit report. One is when you have been mistaken for another person with a similar name and their information ends up in your file. The other more serious cause of error is fraud. Someone may have intentionally gained access to your personal information and obtained credit in your name. Instances of identity theft are increasing.

According to a February 2014 Javelin Study, 13.1 million adults became a victim of identity fraud in the United States during 2013.

Read more about identity theft in our guides:

Both state and federal laws provide you with the right to have errors corrected. Credit bureaus are regulated under the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act (California Civil Code section 1785 et seq.), the laws of other states, and the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 USC 1681 et seq.).

For information on the law in your state, contact your state's consumer protection bureau or office of the Attorney General. National credit bureaus must have a toll-free number so you can contact them with your questions. Also, credit reports must provide an address to request an investigation of inaccurate information.

Once you have notified a CRA of your dispute, both federal and California law allow 30 business days for an investigation. The bureau must consider all the relevant evidence you give it, and errors must be corrected. If the CRA cannot verify negative information, it must be deleted from your file. You are entitled to receive a free copy of your corrected report.

You may ask the credit bureau to send a corrected report to anyone who has requested your file in the past six months, as well as to anyone who has requested it in the last two years in relation to employment. Remember, when corresponding with the CRAs, be sure to make copies of all letters, and mail them certified return receipt requested.

You may file your dispute by writing to the credit bureaus. Or you can follow the bureau’s Web site instructions for filing disputes online. Although letter writing may seem a bit old fashioned to some, there are certain advantages to taking this approach. First, when you send your letter certified and get a signed receipt, you have evidence that your dispute was received.

Second, when you file your dispute online, you will be asked to agree to settle any problems that arise through mandatory arbitration. By agreeing to arbitration, you are essentially giving up—or at least making it more difficult—to exercise your FCRA right to sue a consumer reporting agency.

If you disagree with the result of the CRA's investigation, you have the right to submit a 100-word explanation. The credit bureau must include the explanation in your file although the negative information will not be removed.

The FACTA amendments to the FCRA also place obligations to investigate errors on companies that furnish information to a CRA. Under rules adopted by the FTC and the federal banking agencies, you can dispute inaccurate information found in your credit report directly with the company that furnished the inaccurate information.  If you dispute an error with a CRA, it is always a good idea to also notify the creditor that supplied the information. And, even if you have had errors in your report corrected, it is wise to periodically check your credit report to make sure the errors do not reappear.

If you are having a problem getting your credit report corrected, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) using their complaint form.  You may also:

  • Call their toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372)
  • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244

A November 2013 report by U.S. PIRG titled “Big Credit Bureaus, Big Mistakes: The CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database Gets Real Results for Victims of Credit Reporting Errors” found that the most common consumer problem with credit reports was incorrect information, which accounted for 65 percent of complaints.

On September 4, 2013, the CFPB put companies that supply information to consumer reporting companies (known as furnishers) on notice that they are responsible for investigating consumer disputes forwarded by the consumer reporting companies. Furnishers are also responsible for reviewing all relevant information provided with the disputes, including documents submitted by consumers.  CFPB Bulletin 2013-09.

For more on resolving disputes after FACTA, see PRC Fact Sheet 6a, FACTA, The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act: Consumers Win Some, Lose Some, www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs6a-facta.htm#5

Can I be confident the credit bureau will adequately investigate my dispute?

Unfortunately, you cannot be sure your dispute will get the attention it deserves. The bureaus have been widely criticized for using an automated dispute resolution process. Generally, companies that furnish negative information that is the subject of a dispute receive an automated, coded message from the bureau.

Very often, the creditor simply verifies the information with an automated response back to the credit bureau. Mechanized dispute systems and the potential harm to consumers are the subject of a January 2009 report by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). NCLC’s report, entitled Automated Injustice, is available at www.nclc.org/images/pdf/pr-reports/report-automated_injustice.pdf.

It often can be very difficult to correct errors on your credit reports.  Read more at http://business.time.com/2012/05/08/why-are-credit-report-errors-so-hard-to-fix/ and http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/05/06/credit-scars.html.

Is there more I should know if I'm a victim of identity theft?

As we explained above, if you are a victim of identity theft or suspect your SSN may be compromised, you can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the major credit bureaus. The free copies are mailed to you when you call the credit bureaus to establish a fraud alert. When creditors encounter the fraud alert, they are supposed to contact you to determine if it is truly you or if it is an imposter making the application for credit.

What about "freezing" my credit reports?

Individuals in all 50 states can "freeze" their credit report so it can only be accessed in very limited situations. With some exceptions, this option is offered free to victims of identity theft who provide a police report to the credit bureaus. Those who are not victims of identity theft may have the option of freezing their credit reports for a fee.

For more information about credit freezes, see:

Can I have negative information deleted if the entry is not an error?

After seven years, negative information in your report should automatically be deleted. Under federal as well as California law, the seven years begins 180 days from the date of the original delinquency. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy should be deleted after 10 years from the filing date. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which includes some debt repayment terms, remains on your credit report for seven years. Otherwise, negative information will remain in your file for the period allowed by law. You may include in your 100-word explanation any extraordinary circumstances that led to the negative information, such the loss of a job or illness.

Companies or individuals promising quick fixes are almost always fraudulent. The important thing to remember is that no one can have accurate information removed from the credit file. The law offers some small protection to consumers who deal with so-called "credit doctors" or "credit repair clinics." Such companies are prohibited from charging a fee before completing a promised service.

A better alternative for help with re-establishing good credit is to contact a member agency of the National Foundation for Consumer Credit, such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service. These nonprofit groups have offices in most cities. To find the office nearest you, call or write:

National Foundation for Consumer Credit, Inc.2000 M Street, NW Suite 505, Washington, DC 20036 (202) 677-4300
www.nfcc.org

Beware of other credit repair services. Generally they promise a lot, charge a lot and, deliver little. For more information about credit repair services see www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt097.shtm.

5. Uses of Credit Reporting for Marketing: What Is and Is Not Allowed?

Can the information in my credit file be used for any other purposes?

Yes. The practice of generating and selling lists for use in "pre-approved" credit and insurance offers is allowed by law. TransUnion, Experian and Equifax all engage in selling lists of consumers who meet certain criteria in order to receive a "firm" offer of credit or insurance. This is the source of the many pre-approved credit offers most consumers receive in the mail.

"Pre-approved" and so-called "firm" offers of credit, however, can be somewhat misleading. If you respond, the creditor may access your report before you are actually granted credit. They can deny your credit application at that time. This is explained in the fine print on the pre-approved offer.

Prohibition on marketing. The law does not allow CRAs to compile and sell information from credit reports for the purpose of direct marketing. Although CRAs have engaged in this practice in the past, the Federal Trade Commission in March 2000 ruled that TransUnion violated the FCRA by the sale of personal credit information for target marketing purposes. To read the FTC's full opinion, see www.ftc.gov/opa/2000/03/transunion.htm.

TransUnion appealed the FTC's decision, but the agency's decision was upheld by a federal appeals court. To read the court's opinion, see www.ftc.gov/opa/2001/04/tuappeal.htm.

How to opt out: You can remove your name from any marketing list compiled by a CRA, whether the list is for pre-approved credit offers or direct marketing. To "opt-out," that is, to remove your name from mailing lists compiled by credit bureaus, call the toll-free number all CRAs are required by law to maintain for this purpose:

  • Call (888) 5-OPTOUT or (888) 567-8688 to opt out of pre-approved offers of credit or go online to www.optoutprescreen.com.

This phone number can be used to remove your name from the list of all three CRAs. You may also write to the CRA:

Equifax Options
P.O. Box 740123
Atlanta, GA 30374-0123
www.equifax.com

Experian
Consumer Opt Out
P.O. Box 919
Allen, TX 75013
www.experian.com

TransUnion Name Removal Option
P.O. Box 505
Woodlyn, PA 19094
www.transunion.com

The 1997 amendments to the FCRA allow a subsidiary of a bank holding company to share its customers' credit reports and information from credit, employment, or insurance applications with other affiliates of that company. These amendments give you a right to opt-out of the sharing of affiliate information.

Look for opt-out instructions in the fine print of annual privacy notices you receive from your bank or credit card company. You will be provided with an address to contact to alert financial services companies of your opt-out preferences. To learn more about financial privacy and your right to opt out, see www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs24-finpriv.htm.

6. Enforcing Your Rights: Filing Suit and Complaining to Government Agencies

What can I do if my rights under the FCRA have been violated? Where can I complain?

You may sue a CRA or a company that provides data to a CRA in federal or state court. If you win, you may be entitled to recover an amount for damages you have actually incurred or a maximum of $1,000, whichever is greater. You may also recover court costs and attorney fees. In addition to filing your own lawsuit, you may complain to the FTC or your state Attorney General's Office. Although government agencies do not represent individual citizens, agencies charged with enforcing laws such as the FCRA do investigate reported violations. In most cases, an agency's primary source of information is complaints from the public.

While the FCRA is generally enforced on the federal level by the FTC, compliance by those who use or furnish information to a CRA may be enforced by other federal agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Comptroller of the Currency. Complaints of violations of the FCRA may also be filed with those agencies. Other federal agencies with authority to enforce the FCRA can be found at the end of this fact sheet.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) began supervisory oversight of the largest consumer reporting agencies on September 30, 2012.  Approximately 30 credit reporting agencies (those with more than $7 million in annual receipts) are subject to CFPB oversight.  CFPB monitors business practices, conducts on-site examinations and writes new regulations.  CFPB's rules can be read at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201207_cfpb_final-rule_defining-larger-participants-consumer-reporting.pdf.

7. Investigative Consumer Reports: Employment, Insurance and Rental Housing

How does an investigative consumer report differ from a credit report?

Some credit reporting agencies and investigation companies compile what is known as "investigative consumer reports." Such reports are defined under the FCRA as:

a consumer report or portion thereof in which information on a consumer's character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living is obtained through personal interviews with neighbors, friends, or associates..

An investigative consumer report is normally used in limited circumstances including employment background checks, insurance, and rental housing decisions. An investigative consumer report does not contain information about your credit record that is obtained directly from a creditor or from you. For example, an investigative consumer report should not contain information about a late payment. This type of report cannot be used to grant credit. Because the information in these reports is so detailed and may be sensitive, FCRA imposes stricter regulations on CRAs that compile investigative reports (FCRA, 15 USC 1681d sections 604, 606, and 614).

California's law that governs background checks is somewhat different from the federal FCRA. For more information, see www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs16a-califbck.htm. California has a separate law that governs credit checks. (CA Civil Code §1785 et seq.)

Federal law requires the requester of an investigative consumer report for employment purposes to obtain permission to conduct the report. An exception would be, for example, if an employee were being investigated for possible criminal activity. If the information obtained in the report is used by the employer to make a negative hiring decision, the employer must give the applicant a copy of the report. You have the same rights to correct and dispute inaccurate information in an investigative report as you have in a credit report.

For more information about investigative consumer reports used for employment purposes, see:

8. Resources

General information:

Credit bureaus. The three credit bureaus are a source of information regarding credit reports and credit reporting. See also their trade organization, the Consumer Data Industry Association, www.cdiaonline.org.

Equifax, Inc.
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374
(800) 685-1111
www.equifax.com
Experian National Consumer Assistance
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013-2104
(888) 397-3742
www.experian.com
Trans Union LLC
Consumer Disclosure Center
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
(800) 888-4213
www.transunion.com

Federal Trade Commission. The federal government agency that oversees the credit reporting agencies is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It has developed several informative brochures on credit-related topics. If you have a complaint about a credit bureau, you may report to the FTC online, by mail, or by calling the toll-free number.

Surveys and reports:

Credit reporting laws:

A credit report is just one kind of consumer report covered by the FCRA. Changes to the FCRA were made in December 2003, with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA). For more on FACTA, see Fact Sheet 6a at www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs6a-facta.htm.

Government agencies:

Consumer organizations:

Legal assistance for consumers, Fair Credit Reporting Act :


The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse developed this guide with funding from
the Rose Foundation Consumer Privacy Rights Fund

.

Copyright © Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. This copyrighted document may be copied and distributed for nonprofit, educational purposes only. For distribution, see our copyright and reprint guidelines. The text of this document may not be altered without express authorization of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.


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