While it’s understood that you have access to your own credit report at all times, what about others? Can just anyone take a look at your credit report or your score? The simple answer is no.
We spend a lot of time here at Keeping Score talking about credit reports, scores and the importance of staying informed.
While it’s understood that you have access to your own credit report at all times, what about others? Can just anyone take a look at your credit report or your credit score? The simple answer is no, not just anyone. But there is a little more to it than that, so let’s dive in.
Who exactly can access your credit report or score?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act is your friend, and it has strict rules about who can access your files. The Federal Trade Commission has published a summary of your rights under the act, which includes this statement about access: “Access to your file is limited. A consumer reporting agency may provide information about you only to people with a valid need – usually to consider an application with a creditor, insurer, employer, landlord or other business. The FCRA specifies those with a valid need for access.”
What this means is that, for the most part, only those with a valid business need, known as a “permissible purpose” under federal law, can get access. What counts as a permissible purpose under the law? In most cases, you don’t have to give your permission if the other party has a permissible purpose.
However, when you apply for a credit card or loan, the application almost always includes language that says you are giving permission for the credit grantor to access your file. This is often buried in the fine print. The one exception here is for employment. Your employer must get your written permission on a separate form from your application.
What are the permissible purposes?
A landlord will want assurance that you will pay your rent on time. Looking at your payment history only makes sense. Often rental applications include permission to check your credit. Some landlords rely on other businesses to provide a tenant screening report, which includes tenant history data. This may draw on other sources in addition to your credit report.
Whether you are applying for a car loan, a student loan, a mortgage or other credit, lenders have the right to check your credit to see if you are overextended or have a history of missing payments. Creditors may also look at your credit report to see if your credit is slipping or if it is improving; if it has improved, your creditor may offer to increase your credit limit.
See related: Credit limited decreased? Why it happens, what to do
If a court orders you to appear before it or issues a subpoena for records, it can pull your credit report without your express permission.
On the other hand, prospective bosses must get specific permission to look at your credit file. Before you think this is none of their business, consider that an employer would want to match data in your credit report to your application to prevent an identity thief from getting a job using your name. This would be especially true for a sensitive job or one dealing with materials that could harm others. However, employers cannot order a credit score.
While subject to state-by-state rules, an insurance company can pull your credit report. It is a known actuarial fact that credit and claims have a strong relationship.
This would not be for granting credit, but to find assets they can attach when you don’t pay your tax bill.
Before granting you a professional license, many authorities want to know more about your background. Again, this is especially true if you may be dealing with someone else’s money.
Last but not least, if your account is in collections, debt collectors will want to check your address (called “skip tracing”) or otherwise get in touch with you using data in your credit report.
Who can’t access your credit report or score
As we discussed, anyone looking to access another’s credit information must have a “permissible purpose.” Absent that, you are protected from just anyone checking your report or score. This means that your sweetheart (although I recommend sharing credit reports before sharing your life with another), your nosy neighbor, even your mother can’t check up on you on the sly.
Can someone check your credit without your permission?
As noted above, court orders and subpoenas can result in credit checks without permission from you. In some instances, and in some states, child support determinations may require a credit check. Certain licenses may require a credit check as well and won’t require permission from you. These are all circumstances when your credit can be legally obtained without your specific permission.
How to protect your credit report
The best protection is to regularly check your credit reports for yourself. As I have mentioned here before, the website AnnualCreditReport.com is offering free weekly reports through April 2022. Your reports will tell you every time your credit has been accessed and by whom. If you have reason to believe that your credit has been compromised, you have options for protecting your information.
Identity theft is one of the main reasons to take action. You can place a fraud alert on your credit file, or even a credit freeze. The former, as the name implies, alerts a lender to exercise additional caution before granting credit. A credit freeze shuts down all access to your credit report without your express permission. It is a free service, but it does require a call to the credit bureaus and can sometimes be inconvenient if you forget you have frozen your report and then apply for credit.
I personally recommend a freeze if you are concerned about identity theft. Making it harder on yourself can be a good thing if it makes it impossible for crooks, especially when it comes to your credit.
For those of you with less time or the inclination to do it yourself, there are a number of credit monitoring services that will alert you to changes or inquires to your credit file. Some are free and some charge a fee. Almost every time your data is included in a data breach (which is happening more and more often) you may be offered a free period of file monitoring. Since there is no cost to you, I believe they are worth taking advantage of to be sure you have not been adversely affected.
Remember to keep track of your score!