Understanding Credit Reports
A credit report is a record that contains a consumer's credit history. Though it is commonly used to help determine creditworthiness, its usage has changed in recent years. Insurance companies have used these reports to determine premiums, and prospective employers review reports to establish the character of the job candidate.
What's the Score?
A credit bureau is a clearinghouse for credit history information. Creditors provide these bureaus with information on how their customers pay their bills. The bureau assembles this information, along with public record information, into a file on each consumer.
There are over 1,000 local and regional credit bureaus throughout the United States. Most credit bureaus are either owned or under contract to one of the nation's three major credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. The major credit reporting agencies maintain data for more than 170 million Americans.
It is important to realize that credit bureaus do not rate credit. Each lender has its own formula for evaluating a credit application, and only the creditor can tell the consumer why they made a decision to either extend credit or deny a request. Credit reporting agencies simply supply lenders with the contents of credit reports, which they can review in order to assist them in making their decision. Many times, the decision does not have anything to do with the credit report itself, but instead is based on things like income, length of residence, or employment.
Types of Reports
There are two types of credit reports. They are:
- Consumer Version: Consumers are the only ones who have access to this version. A consumer version of a credit report lists all inquiries including promotional inquiries, account numbers and account management inquiries.
- Business Version: The business version is an abbreviated version of the consumer version. This is the credit report that lenders see. The business version does not contain promotional inquiries, account numbers or account management inquiries.
Contents of a Credit Report
There are four primary categories of information contained in each type of credit report. They are:
- Personal Information
- Credit History
- Public Records
- Full Name
- Current and previous addresses
- Social Security number
- Telephone number
- Date of birth
- Current and previous employers
This history depicts how a consumer has paid their credit accounts in the past, and is used as a guide to determine whether the consumer is likely to pay accounts on time in the future. A credit report's credit history section generally includes a listing of the credit accounts from the last ten years. Types of credit accounts include:
- Retail credit cards
- Bank loans
- Finance company loans
- Bank credit cards
The credit history section shows how financial obligations have been managed. Each entry includes information such as:
- Account number
- Creditor's name
- Amount borrowed
- Amount owed
- Credit limit
- Dates when the account was opened, updated, or closed
- Timeliness of payments
- Late payments (these are noted as a negative activity)
A credit report's public records section includes:
- Tax liens
- Court judgments (including child support judgments)
A credit report's inquiries section includes a listing of creditors, or authorized users, who have requested a copy of a consumer's credit report. There are three types of inquiries. They are:
- Normal Inquiries: These involve creditors who have been given permission to view the consumer's report to determine if they are a good candidate for lending. These are counted as official inquiries.
- Promotional Inquiries: Creditors review the credit bureaus' databases based on a set of parameters and receive mailing address information for individuals matching their criteria. They are not viewing reports. They just want to give people who meet their parameters a firm offer of credit.
- Account Management Inquiries: Creditors who have permission to review the credit reports of their accountholders may do so on a periodic basis. These are not counted as official inquiries.
NOTE: Promotional and account management inquiries are excluded from the business version of credit reports. This is due to the fact that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) protects consumers from being penalized for inquiries that they did not initiate or request. The more inquiries that appear on credit reports, the less favorable the consumer looks to a creditor. Multiple credit inquiries give the impression that the consumer is taking on too much debt, or has too much debt already.
A credit report does NOT include information regarding:
- Sexual orientation
- National origin
- Medical history
- Checking or savings accounts
- Personal lifestyle
- Political preferences
- Criminal record
The best way to know what is contained within one's credit report is to review it carefully. It's recommended that consumers review each of their three credit reports (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian) at least once a year to make sure there are no errors. The information on each report may vary from one agency to another. This is because not all creditors report their information to every credit reporting agency.
The following information is required when ordering credit reports:
- Social Security number
- Date of birth
- Current and previous addresses for the past five years
- Maiden name (if applicable)
There may be a fee for ordering reports. Some states have laws that require credit reporting agencies to provide one or two free reports every year to their residents. Credit reports are also free for consumers have recently been turned down for credit. The consumer must ask the agency that produced the credit report for a copy of it within a specified period of time, usually 60 days.
Credit reports should be accurate, but it is important to make sure that they are. If there are errors or outdated information on a credit report, it could hurt the consumer's chances of getting a new loan. (Click here for how to dispute inaccurate credit report information.) Each agency initiates an investigation of any credit information disputed by a consumer. It is recommended that the consumer not apply for credit while a dispute is being investigated.
Investigations are usually concluded within 30 days of the date that notification was received from the consumer. If additional information is needed for the investigation, the credit reporting agency will inform the consumer of what is needed to process their dispute. As part of its investigation, the agency will check with the creditor whose information is being questioned. If the agency finds that the information in the credit report is inaccurate, the creditor must notify the other major credit reporting agencies of the error so they can correct their information. If the disputed information cannot be verified within a 30-day time frame, the disputed item is deleted from the credit report or updated as requested. However, if the disputed information is subsequently verified, it will be reinserted into the report and the consumer will be notified. If the investigation does not resolve the dispute, consumers have the right to add a 100-word statement to their report regarding that specific account. A revised report, reflecting the results of the investigation, is sent to the consumer at the conclusion of the investigation.
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