Your credit report touches so many critical parts of your life. The information it holds can determine whether you can buy a home, get a job or qualify a credit card. But just who can peek at this all-important information?
Organizations that can access your credit report
Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, any business or organization with a "permissible purpose" can obtain your credit report. That means potential lenders and creditors can request your credit report to help decide whether to extend credit to you and determine the terms involved, such as the annual percentage rate.
But other types of companies and organizations may seek access to your credit report as well. For example, businesses such as apartment landlords and insurance companies might look at your credit report to figure out whether to rent you an apartment or write a policy for your car. A prospective employer might even, with your permission, check your credit.
Here are some other examples:
- Companies that want to prequalify you for credit or insurance.
- Creditors you already do business with.
- Debt collection companies trying to collect money from you.
- Phone companies checking your credit before adding you as a customer.
- Utility companies checking your credit before hooking up your service.
- A bank where you're opening a checking account.
In some circumstances, a government agency can access your credit report if, for example, it is responding to a court order or a subpoena, reviewing your eligibility for certain government benefits or licenses, or working on a child support case.
Generally speaking, your credit report contains personal information, like your name, address and Social Security number; data about your credit accounts; a list of credit inquiries made by credit card issuers and other lenders; and details from public records, such as bankruptcies and civil lawsuits. Though, some requesters may only be able to see a modified version. For example, credit reports for employers don't include your birth year.
Which laws apply to credit report access?
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act is the primary law regulating access to your credit report. However, some states have their own laws as well.
In Illinois, for instance, the state Employee Credit Privacy Act prohibits employers from using credit reports or histories to hire, fire or set pay and conditions for many types of jobs in the state. However, the Illinois law does not apply to banks, insurance companies, debt collectors, state law enforcement agencies or state and local governments.
Even then, some employers in Illinois that normally wouldn't have access to your credit report might be able get it if a genuine occupational requirement is involved, according to Illinois Legal Aid Online, a nonprofit that connects people with resources that help them resolve legal problems. For example, an employer might be allowed to get your credit report if state or federal law requires you, as an employee, to be bonded or if you control business assets of at least $100 per transaction.
Nolo.com, a legal advice website for consumers, has a guide to state laws on employer use of credit reports.
Identifying and limiting access to your credit report
Under federal law, the three major credit bureaus must keep track of when your credit reports are accessed and who accessed them. If, for instance, a landlord orders a copy of one of your credit reports, that action will be listed on the report under the inquiries section.
Though a company may have a legitimate reason for accessing your credit report, it still may make you nervous. It's important to monitor your credit yourself so you can keep an eye out for identity theft and unauthorized access. "Consumers should remain vigilant about regularly checking their credit reports," says Nancy Bistritz-Balkan, vice president of communications and consumer education at Equifax.
You can get a free copy of your credit report by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Consumers can obtain one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit bureaus.
"If you suspect you're a victim of identity theft, you should report it to your local law enforcement agency or the FTC's IDTheft.gov website," says David Blumberg, senior director of public relations at TransUnion.
He also recommends contacting the company where the fraud occurred, such as a credit card issuer, to shut down your account. Blumberg adds that you can also set up a free fraud alert and restrict access to your credit report by imposing a credit freeze. A credit freeze has no effect on your credit score and you can freeze or unfreeze your report for free.
If you've frozen your credit report, you can still get a free annual credit report, open a new account, apply for a job, rent an apartment and buy insurance. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission, if you're doing any of those, you'll need to temporarily lift the freeze either for a certain period or to a particular organization.
But even with a freeze in place, your credit report still is available to existing creditors or their debt collectors, and to government agencies responding to a court order, administrative order, subpoena or search warrant, according to the FTC.
To freeze your credit reports, you must contact each of the three major credit bureaus.
- Equifax: Visit its website or call 800-685-1111.
- Experian: Visit its website or call 888-397-3742.
- TransUnion: Visit its website or call 888-909-8872.
When contacting each of the bureaus, you'll need to provide your name, address, birthdate, Social Security number and other personal information. After you've submitted your freeze request, each bureau you reached out to will supply a PIN or password, which you'll have to use when you want to lift the freeze, the FTC says.
Your credit report will stay frozen until you ask a credit bureau to lift it temporarily or permanently, according to the FTC. If you request a lift of a freeze by phone or online, the credit bureau is supposed to take off the freeze within one hour. If you make the request by mail, the bureau must remove the freeze within three business days after receiving your request.
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