What Is a Credit Report?

What Is a Credit Report?
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Your credit report might be one page, or it might be 25 or more pages, and you don’t have just one. You have at least three, and each report is a detailed microcosm of your financial life and – at least to some extent – your personal life. It’s more or less everything anyone would want to know about you if they’re contemplating entering into any type of business relationship with you, from approving you for a loan or financing to hiring you for a job vacancy, renting you an apartment, or even selling you insurance.

What a Credit Report Is

Each of your credit reports summarizes information about you that’s captured in a credit reporting agency’s electronic database. As the name suggests, that information is predominantly focused on your credit history as it’s been reported to the agency by your lenders. But other information is included, too, such as your recent addresses, your employers, and whether you’ve ever been sued or have filed for bankruptcy protection.

Your credit report today will most likely be marginally different next month because information is added to it as lenders report to the credit agencies. Your credit report can even change by the day because lenders submit their information on different days of the month.

Who Creates Your Credit Reports?

Three major credit reporting agencies in the U.S. – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion –collect information on literally millions of borrowers. Experian claims to maintain records on more than 220 million consumers. You might have heard these agencies referred to as consumer reporting agencies or credit bureaus. They can’t act or report arbitrarily or on a whim, as the Federal Trade Commission oversees them.

Each agency produces its own credit report on a consumer that summarizes the information it’s gathered about that individual, and here’s where it can get tricky. Let’s say that you have an account with Joe’s Credit Card Company. Joe might report only to TransUnion. Experian and Equifax might not be privy to any information regarding your account with Joe.

This could be potentially harmful if you have a stellar borrowing history with Joe, but it could bring a sigh of relief if you’ve had an iffy repayment history with him so that negative information would have appeared. Some lenders routinely report to all three credit reporting agencies, but they’re not legally required to do so.

What a Credit Report Includes

The information contained in your credit report can be broken down into four categories: personal information, your credit/borrowing history, public records, and who has purchased or looked at your credit report. These are referred to as “inquiries.”

  • Your personal information includes obvious identifying information, such as your name and Social Security number. It will show up on your report if you’ve ever used a different name due to marriage, divorce, or a legal name change, or even if you’ve just taken out an account under your nickname, or with or without your middle initial. Your address or addresses, birth date and telephone numbers will appear here, as will the name or names of your employers.
  • Your borrowing history includes a motherlode of information. It cites the type of every loan you’ve taken out, from mortgages to credit cards. It identifies the lenders. It reports how much credit you’ve been extended by each of them, your balances with each lender – even if some of them are paid off and their balances have long since been reduced to zero – and the dates you opened and closed the accounts. Most important, it details whether you’ve consistently paid each of them on time, and if you’ve ever had an account sent to a collection agency. The names of your co-signers or co-borrowers, if any, will appear in this section as well, including your spouse.  
  • Public records include whether you’ve filed for bankruptcy, liens against any of your property including a taxing authority, foreclosures and civil lawsuits and judgments, such as an attorney whose client has sued for malpractice. Public records can even include information on any child support obligation you’ve been paying, particularly if you’ve fallen delinquent, if that obligation has been reported by your state or local support agency.
  • As for inquiries, this section is a listing of everyone who’s asked for a copy of your credit report, or even simply purchased your credit score without also accessing the report. These inquiries should be noted as either “hard” or “soft.” Hard inquiries come from potential lenders and can affect your credit score. Soft inquiries include those made by potential employers, lenders to whom you didn’t apply for a loan but who wanted to prequalify you to offer you one, or lenders with whom you already have an existing account and who want to do an account review, possibly to offer you an increased credit line.

How Long Does All This Stay on Your Reports?

Your borrowing history typically includes records from the last seven years, and credit inquiries go back from six months to two years, depending upon who made them. A bankruptcy can hang in there on your credit report for seven to 10 years, depending on the type of bankruptcy protection you filed for.

Lawsuit judgments will remain for seven years or until the statute of limitations for the suit has expired, whichever occurs lasts. Unpaid tax liens can appear for up to 15 years.

On a brighter note, the good information in your credit report typically remains there for about 10 years, and positive credit card borrowing information will continue appearing for as long as you keep the account open.

Who Gets to See All of This Information?

You can take some comfort in knowing that, for the most part, no one is privy to this information without your consent. Your neighbor can’t request a copy of your credit report to find out if you’ve been making your mortgage payments. The list of who can access your credit report with your authorization is limited to lenders, collection agencies, landlords, employers, government agencies, auto insurance companies and utility companies.

An exception does exist, however, when it comes to your authorization. A court can order a copy of your credit report without your okay. And as for all those other entities, keep in mind that your authorization can be implicit. It’s expected that you know that your credit report will be checked when you apply for a car loan or credit card, so you’re effectively consenting when you apply. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia refers to this provision as being “in connection with a business transaction that is initiated by the consumer.”

How to Get Your Credit Reports

You, too, are entitled to a copy of your credit reports, and you can even get them for free, subject to some limitations.

Under normal circumstances and according to federal law, you’re entitled to one free credit report from each of the three reporting agencies each year. Simply go to AnnualCreditReport.com, or call 877-322-8228 for more information or to request a paper form that you can mail in. Don’t call the credit reporting agencies directly, and watch out for scam services that offer free credit reports because they often want something from you, like a paid membership, in exchange.

And these aren’t normal circumstances in 2020. Experian, Equifax and TransUnion have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by offering even more free reports to consumers during this difficult time. You can get a free copy of your report each week from them through April 2021, also at AnnualCreditReport.com.

You’re also entitled to a free copy of your report if you’re denied credit, employment or insurance because of the information contained there. This rule is provided for by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Ask which of the three credit reports was accessed, then reach out to them within 60 days. You’re entitled to this information by law.

You can request a free credit report if you’re unemployed and if you’re planning to start job-hunting within the next 60 days, as well as if you’re receiving public assistance or if you suspect you’re a victim of fraud or identity theft.

You can purchase a copy of your credit reports if no free options are available to you. Simply contact the credit reporting agency directly. Go to experian.com or call 888-397-3742, to equifax.com or call 800-685-1111, or to transunion.com or call 800-916-8800.

What If You Find an Error?

A great deal of information and data is maintained not only by the three credit reporting agencies, but by lenders, insurers, and employers as well, and mistakes can happen. It’s possible that you’ll access your credit report only to find something on there that’s totally off base. Not to worry. You have options covered under federal law.

Both the credit agency that included the error and the party that reported the misinformation to the agency are obligated to correct it if it is indeed wrong. The Federal Trade Commission recommends reaching out to both and that you do so in writing.

The credit agency must investigate your claim within 30 days unless they think it’s frivolous. It must also provide the lender or entity who reported the information with any information you provide to them. This lender is required to investigate as well, and to report its findings back to the credit agency.

The credit agency must also notify the other two agencies if you prevail and can prove that the information is indeed inaccurate. Moreover, it’s obligated to send you its written report of the investigation and a free copy of your credit report when the misinformation has been corrected. It must send a copy of the corrected report to anyone who accessed your report in the last six months before the error was fixed. This time limit extends to two years if a potential employer accessed a copy of your incorrect report.

You Can Contribute to Your Own Report

If you can’t prove that the information reported about you was wrong, you still have a legal right to submit a short statement to the agencies to be included with your credit reports and made available to anyone who requests a copy. You might be charged for this courtesy, however, and your statement is generally limited to 100 words.

The statement doesn’t have to be limited to a dispute over accurate information, either. You can use this option to explain that you were divorced and the event derailed your finances, that you lost your job, or to explain any other circumstance that might have resulted in a ding on your credit report.