Credit Reports: Frequently Asked Questions
Table of Contents
- How can I check my credit report?
- What if there is an error on my credit report?
- How can I build a credit history so that I can establish credit?
- Who can see my credit file?
- How can I decipher my credit report?
How can I check my credit report?
Mistakes on credit reports occur more frequently than you might think. And whether those mistakes are there because they’re caused by stolen or unauthorized use of credit cards, other individuals with the same name, or a creditor reporting something in the wrong way, it’s important to check your credit report on a regular basis.
By law, and at your request, you are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus listed below once every 12 months. To check your report or obtain a copy do not contact the three nationwide consumer reporting companies individually. Instead, visit www.annualcreditreport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. The form is available at www.ftc.gov/credit.
AnnualCreditReport.com is a centralized service for consumers to request free annual credit reports. You may order your reports from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies at the same time, or you can order one report at a time from each of the three companies.
In addition, federal law states that you’re entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, but you must submit a request for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company.
You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft. Otherwise, a consumer reporting company may charge you up to $11.00 for another copy of your report within a 12-month period. Residents of CA, CO, CT, GA, ME, MD, MA, MN, MT, NJ, PR, VT, or VI, may be entitled to a free or reduced price personal credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus, which are listed below:
What if there is an error on my credit report?
By law (under the Fair Credit Reporting Act) you have the right to correct inaccurate information in your credit file. You must dispute your report directly to the credit reporting agency.
Notify the credit reporting company, in writing, what information you think is inaccurate. Include copies (do not send originals) of documents that support your position. Provide your complete name and address and clearly identify each item in your report you dispute and state the facts and explain why you dispute the information. You must also request that the item be removed or corrected.
Credit reporting companies must investigate the items in question — usually within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. After the information provider receives notice of a dispute from the credit reporting company, it must investigate, review the relevant information, and report the results back to the credit reporting company. If the information provider finds the disputed information is inaccurate, it must notify all three nationwide credit reporting companies so they can correct the information in your file.
Tip: Send your dispute by certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures. By doing so, you can document what the credit reporting agency received.
When the investigation is complete, the credit reporting company must give you the results in writing and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. This free report does not count as your annual free report. If an item is changed or deleted, the credit reporting company cannot put the disputed information back in your file unless the information provider verifies that it is accurate and complete. The credit reporting company also must send you written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the information provider.
If you request it, the credit reporting company must send notices of any corrections to anyone who received your report in the past six months. You can have a corrected copy of your report sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.
If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the credit reporting company, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports. You also can ask the credit reporting company to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. You can expect to pay a fee for this service.
While the investigation is going on, be sure to tell the creditor or other information provider, in writing, that you dispute an item. Be sure to include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider reports the item to a credit reporting company, it must include a notice of your dispute. And if you are correct — that is, if the information is found to be inaccurate — the information provider may not report it again.
Tip: If you are divorced and suffering the consequences of a credit rating damaged during the marriage, you may be able to obtain relief if the bad credit rating was your spouse’s fault and you can prove it. According to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a lender must consider any evidence you have showing that your spouse—not you—was the irresponsible one.
How can I build a credit history so that I can establish credit?
It may take time to establish your first credit account if you have no reported credit history. This problem affects mainly (1) young people, (2) older people who have never used credit, and (3) divorced or widowed women who shared credit accounts reported only in the husband’s name.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Check with a credit bureau to find out what is in your credit report.
Tip: If you have had credit before under a different name or in a different location and it is not reported in your file, ask the credit bureau to include it. Although credit bureaus are not required to add new accounts to your file, many will do so for a fee. Tip: If you currently share a credit account with your spouse, ask the creditor to report it under both names
- When contacting your creditor or credit bureau, do so in writing and include relevant information, such as account numbers, to speed the process. As with all important business communications, keep a copy of what you send.
- Build a credit history by applying for credit with a local business, such as a department store, or borrow a small amount from your credit union or the bank where you have checking and savings accounts. A local bank or department store may approve your credit application even if you do not meet the standards of larger creditors.
- If you are rejected for credit, find out why. There may be reasons other than lack of credit history. Your income may not meet the creditor’s minimum requirement or you may not have worked at your current job long enough.
Tip: Wait at least six months before making each new application. Credit bureaus record each inquiry about you. Some creditors may deny your application based on your having too many credit inquiries.
Tip: If you still cannot get credit, ask someone with an established credit history to act as your co-signer. Then, once you have repaid the debt, try again to get credit on your own. Alternatively, you may wish to consider a secured credit card.
Who can see my credit file?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows access to your credit file only by the following: those authorized in writing by you, creditors to whom you are applying for credit, insurers, potential employers, and those who have a “legitimate business purpose related to a business transaction involving you” including, landlords, a state or local child support enforcement agency, 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.
In addition, government agencies can obtain identifying information about you. This is limited to your name, current and former addresses, and current and former places of employment.
Every time someone requests a copy of your credit report, it is noted as an “inquiry” on your credit file. You are entitled to know who has requested your credit file within the past six months (or two years if for employment purposes). This information is provided when you order a copy of your credit report.
Tip: In addition to checking on the information in your report, review who has seen your file. Credit bureaus must establish procedures to keep anyone without a legitimate business purpose from obtaining your report, but unauthorized access to credit files does sometimes occur.
How can I decipher my credit report?
Your credit report is divided into four sections: identifying information, credit history, public records, and inquiries.
Identifying information is information used to identify you such as your maiden and married name(s), social security number, current and previous addresses, date of birth, telephone numbers, driver’s license numbers, employer, and spouse’s name.
Credit history is made up of your accounts, which are sometimes called tradelines. There are two types of credit accounts, revolving, which includes items such as credit cards, and installment, which includes car loans and mortgages. Each account listed includes the name of the creditor and the account number, when you opened your account, what kind of account it is, the payment amount, the status of the account (open, closed, paid, active), the balance if it’s a loan, and how well you have paid the account (never late, 30 days late, etc.).
Public records lists financially related data such as bankruptcies, judgments and tax liens that would adversely affect your credit.
The last section, inquiries, is a list of everyone who has asked to see your credit report–everyone from credit card companies you applied to for a new card or banks for a new car loan and creditors interested in pre-qualifying you for a credit card.
It is vital that you understand every piece of information on your credit report in order that you be able to identify possible errors or omissions.
Read your report carefully, making a note of anything you do not understand. The credit bureau is required by law to provide trained personnel to explain it to you. If accounts are identified by code number, or if there is a creditor listed on the report that you do not recognize, ask the credit bureau to supply you with the name and location of the creditor so you can ascertain if you do indeed hold an account with that creditor.
In addition to the account information, credit reports often contain symbols and codes that look like “Greek” to the average consumer. Fortunately every credit bureau report also includes a key explaining each code.
Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) Codes
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) requires creditors who report information about accounts to report it in the names of all people with a relationship to the account, including co-signers or authorized users. To help lenders identify your legal liability on all your credit accounts, credit bureaus add a code to each account, termed the ECOA code. Credit bureaus may list the ECOA codes differently, but the basic categories are as follows:
Individual. You alone are legally responsible. This designation gives you a strong credit reference, assuming a good history. You alone are legally responsible. This designation gives you a strong credit reference, assuming a good history. You alone are legally responsible. This designation gives you a strong credit reference, assuming a good history.
Joint. You and someone else — often a spouse – are both legally liable. A joint account is equal to an individual account for building your credit history. You and someone else — often a spouse – are both legally liable. A joint account is equal to an individual account for building your credit history. You and someone else — often a spouse – are both legally liable. A joint account is equal to an individual account for building your credit history.
Co-signer. You signed loan documents for someone else, to help them qualify for a loan. Also referred to as “On Behalf of” (secured credit for another individual other than spouse).
Co-signer, primarily liable: You took out an account for yourself, but someone else co-signed for the loan to ensure payment. Also known as “Maker” (account for which subject is liable but a co-maker is liable if maker defaults.)
Authorized user. You can use the account, and may have a card in your name, but you did not sign the application and are not legally responsible. Because you have no legal obligation, this designation does not help you get your own credit history. You can use the account, and may have a card in your name, but you did not sign the application and are not legally responsible. Because you have no legal obligation, this designation does not help you get your own credit history. You can use the account, and may have a card in your name, but you did not sign the application and are not legally responsible. Because you have no legal obligation, this designation does not help you get your own credit history. Officially referred to as “Business/Commercial” and identifies that the company reported in the name fields is contractually liable for the account.
Undesignated. No status was reported by the creditor reporting the account information and is not used on accounts opened after 06/1977.