Consumers' Right To Access A Free Annual Credit Report

New Regulations Benefit Consumers

Consumers' Right To Access A Free Annual Credit Report
May 3, 2013

Consumers to Get Streamlined Access to Consumer Reports

There has been a lot of confusion in the past about credit reports, leading to several common questions from consumers: "If I get a report, does it cost money?" "Does asking for one affect my credit?" "Where is the best and safest place to get one?" Hopefully, consumers will have more clarity and get their questions answered with an announcement from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB recently notified nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies of their obligation to provide a "streamlined process" for consumers to request a free annual credit (or consumer) report. In addition, after examining numerous agencies' practices, the CFPB also issued warning letters to those agencies that may be violating the law by failing to provide consumers the required streamlined process for accessing their reports. Under federal law, they must give you, as a consumer, an easy way to get a free copy of your report every 12 months.

As a general practice, nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies collect and provide specific types of information on individual consumers' histories. This can include a consumer's check-writing activity, medical payment history, rental payment information, dates of employment, and insurance claims. The specialty consumer reporting agencies are included in the larger industry category of consumer reporting agencies. The three most recognizable and dominant credit reporting businesses are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These credit agencies aggregate and analyze consumer credit and other information and then sell the data to third parties. Aside from the three large credit reporting giants, there are approximately 400 other consumer reporting agencies in the U.S.



Consumers have a right to a free annual report (known as a "file disclosure" in the consumer credit business). This not only includes the largest three credit bureaus, but consumers may also obtain a free report from any of the nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies. The CFPB stresses that accuracy is critical. Many creditors make financial decisions and set interest and payment terms based on the information contained in these reports. Under federal law (the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)), each consumer has a right to dispute the information contained in his or her reports, as well as the underlying information consumer reporting agencies have about him or her. By law, consumer reporting agencies must then investigate such disputes and correct any inaccuracies they discover. Common mistakes in credit reports include: (i) loans and credit accounts consumers have never opened; (ii) misspelled names or inaccurate Social Security numbers, addresses, or phone numbers; and (iii) closed accounts listed as open, accounts wrongly listed as late, accounts listed more than once, and incorrect account balances, credit limits, or delinquency dates.

The CFPB's bulletin emphasizes that the FCRA — which the CFPB oversees — requires all nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies to provide an easy way for consumers to get free access to their annual reports. Companies must provide a toll-free number that is published in every telephone directory in which a number for them appears and clearly and prominently on their website. In addition, they must have clear and easy instructions for consumers to obtain these reports as well as adequate staff in place and/or appropriate facilities to deal with consumers' requests.

"Nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies can have great influence over a consumer’s tenancy, insurance premiums, or even employment," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "[T]he CFPB is reminding these companies that they must follow the law and provide consumers with easy access to their free annual report. If we have reason to believe that companies are not following the law, we will take action."

Late in 2012, the CFPB reviewed numerous nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies to see if they were complying with these requirements. They looked at phone listings and websites for consumer reporting agencies across the country and tried to obtain reports. This investigation clearly showed that many companies are not listing their toll-free numbers, and others that had toll-free numbers did not make it easy for consumers to request reports.

Those companies that the CFPB has reason to believe violated the requirement to provide consumers with streamlined access to their reports may be subject to enforcement actions. The Bureau will continue to monitor consumer reporting agencies to make sure that they comply with this obligation and other federal consumer financial laws.

If you as a consumer have a complaint with a consumer reporting agency and are not satisfied with the resolution, you can contact the CFPB here: CFPB Complaint. The CFPB advises that you check your report with Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion at least once per year. You can order reports — including your annual free reports — at annualcreditreport.com or get a free credit report and score within minutes from MoneyTips Credit Manager. Specialty consumer reports must be requested individually from each reporting company. A list can be found here: Consumer Report Agencies PDF.

If you would like to monitor your credit to prevent identity theft and see your credit reports and scores, check out our credit monitoring service.

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