Credit reports are statements that credit reporting agencies make to someone else about a consumer. These reports typically include basic information about a consumer’s debts, creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living. Lenders use your credit report—or the credit score that's generated from the data in the report—to help them decide whether to extend you credit and, if so, under what terms.
Credit reporting agencies prepare credit reports. The three nationwide credit reporting agencies are:
Regional and small credit reporting agencies also prepare reports, and many of these agencies get their information from one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. Certain nationwide specialty reporting agencies gather and report only particular types of information, like bad check writing or rental or medical histories.
You might hear about “credit reporting agencies,” “credit bureaus,” or “consumer reporting agencies,” which are three names for the same thing. Sometimes you will hear about “credit reports” or “consumer reports”—again, the same thing. “Consumer reports” and “consumer reporting agencies” are the terms used in the federal law that protects consumers in connection with their credit reports, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) (15 U.S.C. § 1681 and following). But most people just use the terms "credit reports" and "credit reporting agencies."
Information in your credit report can be broken down into five main categories:
A credit report usually includes your name and any former names, past and present addresses, your Social Security number, and your telephone number, and may include your employment history, including salary.
Whether you are married, separated, divorced, or single, your credit report should contain information only about you. Information about your spouse should appear in your report only if you are both permitted to use or obligated to pay an account—like a joint account.
Certain creditors provide monthly reports to credit reporting agencies showing the status of your account with them. Each of these accounts is reported separately. Your credit report will typically contain the name of the creditor, the type of account (like mortgage or revolving), the account number, when the account was opened, your payment history, your credit limit or the original amount of a loan, your current balance, and perhaps your highest balance on revolving accounts.
Many businesses provide information to credit reporting agencies only when an account is past due or the creditor has taken collection action against you, including turning the account over to a collection agency. Creditors who generally report accounts only when they are past due or in collection include landlords, utility companies, insurance companies, lawyers and other professionals, and local retailers.
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 records 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, bankruptcies, tax liens, mechanic’s liens, and wage garnishments. Federal law also requires credit reporting agencies to report child support delinquencies submitted by child support enforcement agencies.
The final items in your credit report are called “inquiries.” These are the names of creditors and others, such as a potential employer, who have requested a copy of your report during the previous year or two. Credit inquiries usually fall into two categories: “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 (think of all those 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.
Credit reports may also contain a credit score, but that's usually not included with your free copy. (Under federal law, you may get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting agency.)
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.
To get your free reports from any or all three nationwide credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion), contact the Annual Credit Report Service. To do this:
Be sure to use only the Annual Credit Report Service to get your free reports. Some for-profit companies use similar names and URLs to try to get you to pay for a credit report or other services. If a different website says it provides free credit reports, beware. The “free” report often comes with strings attached, like a service that you have to pay for when the introductory period ends, and some sites collect personal information.
If you get a copy of your free report from Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion and find errors in the report, learn about how to dispute them.