By now you know that it’s a smart move to regularly review your credit report. You might wonder, though, which credit report is the best one to review or which one a creditor (or employer, or landlord) will see.
You have many different credit reports
In the U.S. there are three major consumer credit reporting agencies. They are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. They each maintain a file on U.S. consumers who qualify for one. To have a credit report, someone must report data about you to the agency. Most adults in the U.S. have a credit report, but it’s possible to not have one. If you don’t have credit accounts, or if you have accounts with creditors who don’t report data, you may not have a file. For those reasons, it’s also possible to have a credit history on file with one or two but not all three bureaus.
On top of all that, reporting is voluntary. Not all creditors report, and many creditors don’t report to all three agencies. If you had a credit report in the past but all of your accounts age off, you may no longer have a credit report.
Whether or not you have credit data in your history, reportable data can and does take other forms. Dozens of specialty reporting agencies collect information tailored to certain industries. That information might include:
Volunteer activity and nonprofit associations
Evictions, lease violations, and other landlord-tenant actions
Court judgments, liens, and other public records
Checking account history and check-writing
Personal property insurance coverage and losses
Auto insurance coverage and losses
Commercial property claims and losses
Medical conditions and hazardous avocations (with your authorization, to give to life and health insurance companies during underwriting)
Prescription drug purchases (with your authorization, to give to an insurance company)
Drug and alcohol screening
Payday loan and check-cashing history
Utility accounts, including cell phones
Property legal filings and tax payments
Criminal background and prison sentences
Presence on government databases for sex offenders and terrorists
You may have several of these types of reports. Again, it depends on whether the reporting company has received data about you. Here are a few examples:
If you rent a home from a private landlord, you may not have a file that shows your rental history. If you were evicted, however, that is a civil action brought against you by a property owner. It is public record and may appear on your consumer credit report as well as a specialty report for landlords.
If you wrote a check that bounced or overdrew your bank account, you may have a file with a reporting agency that maintains data about consumers’ history with banks and checking accounts.
If you have made a claim against an insurance policy, you probably have a file with one of the agencies that collects and reports data on coverage and losses.
Specialty reporting agencies may not have a file on you. If you’ve never applied for individually underwritten life insurance, you probably don’t have a medical specialty report.
Who can access your reports?
Access to any of your reports is limited by law. Generally, an entity with a legitimate need can request a copy of your report. “Legitimate” means, in a broad sense, that you have provided authorization. Creditors, banks, employers, landlords, and insurers who intend to check your credit report will require your authorization or will not process your application. The same is true for utility and cell phone providers, but in those cases you can often bypass the credit check by paying a cash deposit instead.
You also provide tacit authorization to a retailer to check a certain kind of retail report when you ask to pay with a personal check. Walmart, for example, still accepts paper checks, but immediately upon receipt of the check passes it through a scanner that communicates with the TeleCheck reporting agency. If you have a history of bouncing checks, the transaction will be declined.
Debt collectors are authorized to check your credit reports without your permission.
How can you see what’s in these reports?
All consumer reporting agencies are required to provide you with a copy of your report if you request it, but they don’t all do that for free. You can check this list by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to find contact information for many specialty reporting agencies. The list also notes which agencies offer free annual copies. If there is a fee, it cannot be more than $12.
Nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) must provide you with a free copy of your report every 12 months. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to request your free copies.
You can get additional free reports under certain circumstances:
You receive public assistance
You believe your file has errors due to fraud
You place a fraud alert on your file
You are unemployed and intend to apply for employment within 60 days
You live in a state that offers additional free credit reports (Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Vermont)
Visit Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to request the additional free copies.
If there is an adverse action against you (you apply for something and your application is denied, for example), the agency that prepared the report used to make the decision must provide you with a free copy upon your request. There is often a time limit on that request, so request your free copy as soon as you receive notification of the adverse action. The notification should tell you how to make the request, and the report should tell you how to dispute information you believe is in error.
If the specialty agency also provides a score, be sure to view it in the proper context. In other words, find out the range. FICO® scores and VantageScores® range from 300 to 850, ChexSystems scores range from 100 to 899 and PRBC scores range from 100 to 850.
Why do all of these credit reports matter?
Smart consumers make sure that the information reported is accurate. Errors can bring your credit score down, or result in application denial or very bad terms on the product you want. Outdated information can make you the victim of incessant debt collection attempts. Damage from identity theft can have all of these results and more.
You probably don’t need to submit requests to every reporting agency all at once. Before you apply for life insurance, request a copy of your medical specialty report. Before you apply to rent an apartment, check your tenant specialty report.
You always have the right to dispute inaccurate information with the company reporting it. None of the agencies is obligated to remove current, accurate information, whether positive or negative. If you have a complaint about any report or the agency that prepared it, submit it to the CFPB.