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What Are Credit Reports?
Credit reports are prepared by companies called credit bureaus. Credit bureaus collect information about your history of payments on bills and loans. If a car dealer, bank, landlord, credit card company or other business is considering doing business with you, they may buy a credit report from a credit bureau to see whether you are a good risk. Some employers will also do a credit check on you when you apply for a job.
You must be told if a credit report has been used against you. Anyone who uses a credit report against you - - for example, deny an apartment, a job or credit - - must tell you in writing the name, address and phone number of the bureau that provided the report.
How Do I Get A Copy of My Report?
- A credit bureau must give you a copy of your report.
- Your copy of the report is free if anyone has used it against you within the last 60 days.
- You can also get a free report once every 12 months if you certify that you are:
1. Unemployed and plan to seek employment within 60 days OR
2. Receiving public assistance such as MFIP, SSI, GA, MA or
Food Stamps OR
3. Your report is inaccurate due to fraud
- Otherwise, the credit bureau may charge you for a copy of the report.
- Fill out this form and send it to the credit bureau. Enclose proof of your identity - - for example a copy of your driver's license, state ID or a utility bill with your current address. You will probably get the report within a week or two.
- If the credit bureau has a local office, you can get the report faster by calling and arranging to pick it up.
Who are the Big Three Credit Bureaus?
There are three national credit bureaus. If possible, you should get a copy of your report from all three. Their phone numbers are:
Mistakes are common in credit reports. If you spot a mistake on your report, you should take the following steps:
- Write a letter to the bureau explaining the mistake. Date it and keep a copy.
- In the letter include as much information as possible, including the name of the creditor, the account number and the reason why the report is not correct.
- Along with the letter, send a copy of the report. Circle the mistake on it and write next to it, "Please Remove."
- Also include copies of any papers or documents that help explain the situation.
- You should also contact the creditor directly and ask them to stop reporting the information incorrectly. If you dispute the debt with the creditor, they may agree to stop reporting it. They might also give you proof that they had made an error which you can then send to the credit bureaus. Within 5 days, the credit bureau must ell you that it received your complaint and tell you what action it is taking about it.
- The credit bureau must investigate the items you tell them are inaccurate (usually within 30 days.) The credit bureau will give your complaints to its source of information - - for example, an old landlord or a creditor. The source must review your evidence and report its findings to the credit bureau. The credit bureau must give you a written report of its investigation. If the investigation results in a change in your report, they must also give you a copy of the new report.
- If the credit bureau will not remove an item that is incomplete or wrong, you can submit a statement of up to 100 words explaining your side of the story. The bureau must include that statement in all future reports.
- Your credit report will list all the businesses that have received a report in the last six months. If you correct a mistake, you can require the credit bureau to notify everyone to whom they sent the report.
- If the credit bureaus does not follow these rules, you should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, 6th and Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20580. You may also want to hire a lawyer. If you have a low income, call the local legal aid office.
A credit bureau can not report negative information that is more than seven years old with these exceptions:
- They can report a bankruptcy until it has been discharged for ten years
- If you are applying for $150,000 or more in credit or life insurance or for a job that pays over $75,000, they can report negative information no matter how old it is.
- If you have a common name (like "John Smith"), your credit report might include the debts of other people with the same or similar name. If you are named after a relative, your report might list their debts. You can usually clear this up by providing proof of your social security number, date of birth or addresses.
- You may not owe the money because the business that you were dealing with was guilty of fraud or deception or violated consumer protection laws. For example, maybe a car dealer is reporting a debt but they lied to you about the mileage on the car when they sold it to you. While you dispute the debt with the creditor, you can have the credit bureau report that it is a disputed debt.
Old debts can prevent you from buying a house, getting a credit card or renting an apartment. Creditors may be able to garnish your wages or bank accounts. On the other hand, not every old debt will stop you from getting credit. A bank or other business might care more that you have a steady job than that you have an old debt. Your first priority should always be taking care of your current situation - - paying your rent or mortgage and your utility bills in full, for example.
In some cases, you might legally owe the money but you might want to explain why. Perhaps you were working for a company that closed down. Perhaps your ex-husband ran up a big bill right before you divorced him. Perhaps you had a serious illness at a time when you had no health insurance. Write up a statement explaining the situation and give it to businesses or landlords that are getting credit reports about you.
If you can afford to pay off old debts, you may want to work out a plan that allows you to repay it in installments. If you would like help in clearing up your credit, call the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, (1-800-388-2227). CCCS is a non-profit group that provides advice and debt management at a low cost. If you are interested in buying a house, talk to a home ownership program in your area; they will help you work on your credit history.
In some cases, you may want to consider bankruptcy. Bankruptcy might make sense if you do not see any way of catching up on your bills, and your creditors are taking action against you - - garnishing your wages or intercepting your tax refunds, for example.
Watch out for "credit repair" companies that offer to help you hide bad credit or "create a new credit identity." It is a federal crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application or to misrepresent your social security number. Some credit repair companies advise people to get Employer Identification Numbers and use them instead of social security numbers. If you are doing this to hide bad credit, it is illegal. In general, beware of any group offering "credit repair." They may charge you money for bad advice or for things you could do yourself for free.
Published by Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Northside Office, Minneapolis Urban League Building, 2100 Plymouth Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55411. Reprinted with permission. This information is not a complete answer to an individual legal problem. See your lawyer or you local legal aid office for advice.
Information about serving writs may be found at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Guide to Civil Process.