Your credit reports can considerably influence the decisions others make about you. So, it's essential to know what's in your reports and take steps to ensure that the information is accurate.
Under the FCRA, you have the right to dispute all incomplete and inaccurate information in your credit report with the agency that made the report.
A "credit report" is a detailed record of how you've managed your credit over time. Credit reporting agencies, like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, collect data from creditors, lenders, and public records to produce the reports.
The agencies then sell the reports to current and prospective creditors, and anyone else with a legitimate business need for the information. For example, lenders use credit reports, or the credit score that results from the data in it, to help them decide whether to grant you credit and, if so, under what terms.
The better your credit report, the more likely your credit request will be granted, and the lower your interest rate will be. Many landlords, employers, and insurance companies will also consider your credit history when making a decision.
So, your credit report is either a valuable asset or a liability, depending on its contents.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) (15 U.S.C. § 1681 and following) requires credit reporting agencies to adopt reasonable procedures for gathering, maintaining, and distributing information. It also sets accuracy standards for creditors that provide data to agencies.
Even with these safeguards, credit reports often have errors and inaccuracies.
A credit report may include basic information about a consumer's debts, creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living. The data in the reports from the different credit reporting agencies can vary to some degree, depending on which company produces the report.
Credit reports usually have multiple sections with the following information types.
This section typically includes information like your full name and any aliases. It also has your Social Security number (for security reasons, this number will be truncated on the copy provided to you), current and previous addresses, phone number, birth date, and current and former employers.
Public records are maintained by government agencies and are accessible to anyone. Local, state, and federal court filings are public records. So is the data kept at land record offices.
Credit reporting agencies use private companies to search public records for information like lawsuits, including divorces and evictions, court judgments and judgment liens, foreclosures, and bankruptcies. Federal law also requires credit reporting agencies to report child support delinquencies submitted by child support enforcement agencies.
This section includes a listing of open credit accounts and closed accounts. It also has account numbers, the date you opened and, if applicable, closed the account, the type of account (like mortgage, revolving credit, or student loan), the monthly payment, your credit limit or loan amount and current balance, any co-signers, and your payment history.
This section includes the names of companies and individuals who have obtained copies of your credit report, called "inquiries." These are the names of creditors and others who have requested a copy of your report during the previous year or two. Credit inquiries usually fall into "soft" and "hard" inquiries.
Soft inquiries. Soft inquiries show up only on the report that you see, not on the report that creditors get. Types of inquiries in this category include creditors that request your credit report for promotional purposes (like the pre-approved credit card applications you get in the mail), current creditors that review your report periodically to check up on you, and notations when you've requested a copy of your own credit report. Soft inquiries don't affect your credit score.
Hard inquiries. Hard inquiries appear on the report sent to prospective creditors and employers, and they also appear on the report you get. These inquiries consist of creditors that have requested your report after you have applied for credit with them. They may remain on your file for up to two years.
Credit reports don't have information about your race, religious preference, medical history, personal lifestyle, political affiliation, friends, or other information that isn't related to credit. Also, ordinary credit reports don't contain information about your income, investments, or bank accounts.
You can get a free copy of your credit report from each major credit reporting agency (again, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com.
In some situations, you're entitled to receive additional free credit reports. For example, if you're turned down for credit, your credit limit is reduced, you're offered less favorable credit terms than you requested, you're a victim of identity theft, or you're unemployed and seeking employment.
A data breach at Equifax in 2017 compromised the personal information of at least 147 million consumers. As part of a court settlement related to the hack, everyone—whether they were affected by the breach or not—can get six more free credit reports from Equifax each year for seven years.
Several nationwide specialty credit reporting agencies also exist. These agencies keep records on particular types of transactions, like tenant histories, insurance claims, medical records or payments, employment histories, and check writing histories.
These agencies must give you a free report every twelve months if you request it. To get a specialty credit report, you'll have to contact each agency individually.
After you get your credit reports, be sure to review them and dispute any inaccurate information you find. If you're planning to make a big purchase, like a house or a car, or a significant financial commitment, such as refinancing your mortgage, you might want to review information from all three agencies well in advance.
The FCRA limits how long a credit reporting agency can report negative items in your credit report. Items that aren't negative but are neutral or positive can be reported indefinitely. Review the rules below and then check your credit report for negative items that are too old to be reported.
You may initiate a dispute about an incomplete or inaccurate item in your credit report online, by mail, or by phone.
The three major credit reporting agencies allow you to dispute information in your credit report online.
If you prefer not to use the online process, you can mail in your dispute. After you've compiled a list of all incomplete and inaccurate information you want to be corrected or removed, prepare a letter identifying each correction needed and the reasons that support your dispute for that item.
Send your letter to the address that the agency provides for disputing information. Search the websites listed above to find the proper address. Keep a copy for your records. Also, enclose copies of any documents you have that support your claim. Retain your original documents. It might help to include a copy of your credit report with the disputed items highlighted.
To initiate a dispute by phone, call the credit reporting agency that has inaccurate information on your credit report. Visit the websites above to find the phone numbers.
Once the agency receives your dispute, it must either reinvestigate the items you dispute or delete them from your credit report within three business days after receiving your dispute.
If the agency chooses to delete the incorrect information within this time frame, it must:
If the agency does not delete the information within three business days, it must:
In most situations, a credit reporting agency has to investigate an item once you dispute it. But if your dispute is frivolous or irrelevant, the agency doesn't have to investigate further.
So, if you challenge everything or almost everything in the report—without regard to what you believe is accurate or inaccurate—or you repeatedly ask for reinvestigation of the same item, the credit reporting agency might not have to investigate your dispute at all.
If the credit reporting agency doesn't respond to your dispute within the time limits imposed by law or at all, you have a few options, like:
If you've exhausted all other options for correcting your credit report, and the agency still won't fix the error or errors, consider talking to a consumer law attorney or debt settlement lawyer who can help you enforce your rights. You have the right to sue a credit reporting agency that violates your rights under the FCRA, including continuing to report incorrect information.
Need a lawyer? Start here.