Credit Information and the Fair Credit Reporting Act

Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D.
Last Updated: July, 1999

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An individual's credit record, which is included in several publicly accessible databases, allows them to be found easily. Private investigators have told me that any investigative agency can request the "header" of your credit record without the detailed financial data, for a few dollars from one of the major credit reporting agencies. The record header has your most recent addresses in it. All the PI needs is your name, approximate age, and perhaps a city where you have lived. If your name is a common one, a few other sources may be checked to narrow down the search. But if you are presently paying off a credit card or have a mailing address in your own name, you can be found.

Some readers have probably seen recent headlines about changes in the Federal law concerning who gets to see your record. The legislation is the Fair Credit Reporting Act. It has been around since 1970, but it was amended effective October 1, 1997. From the standpoint of finding someone, the recent amendments don't seem to change much. It is still legal for Credit Bureaus to give out the header of your file -- and if I'm reading the law correctly, they don't have to tell you who requested the screening or why.

The good news is that your financial details cannot be reported to someone who has no need to know -- which was also true before the law was amended. One difference is that an employer must now have your signature on a document which *specifically* authorizes a background check. If somebody gets credit data on you without your consent, they can be jailed or fined.

You can get a copy of your credit report for free once per year, just by asking a credit bureau. The new law makes it easier for you to challenge errors in your record. If the information is incorrect, you have a right to get it fixed. However, if your credit is crummy because of things you actually did then, in my opinion, you don't have a prayer of getting your record "repaired." Don't believe anybody who tells you they can replace a bad record or erase a bankruptcy. It can't be done.

My wife is in mortgage banking and she once processed home equity loans. Her good advice is that if you've crashed your credit, then you should expect to spend a few years of hard work to make things right. Credit counsellors can help you get control of your financial life, but they cannot make up a new history for you. If you have credit problems, don't waste more of your money. Call your County Consumer Credit Counselling office. They can help work out a budget and negotiate with your creditors. Their services are free.

A number of sites on the Internet provide the full text of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as recently amended. If you have a credit problem related to an error in the record, please read the Act and talk with a lawyer. One place where the text is available is Fair Credit Reporting Act .

You can order a copy of your credit report from Equifax . The site was originally set up to allow you to request your credit report by surface mail [sorry folks, but I guess they had to sacrifice speed and on-line convenience to privacy... {:-)  ]

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