Understanding Your Rights - Protecting Your Credit
Nearly everyone uses some form of credit during their lifetime, and most people are in debt to one or more creditors at all times. There is nothing wrong with using credit – our economy would collapse without it. However, knowing how the system works and what your rights are may save you a tremendous amount of time and money and make you a more powerful consumer. The importance of a solid credit record cannot be overstated.
How the credit bureaus work
Collecting and reporting credit histories is a multi-billion dollar business. The three national credit reporting agencies – Trans-Union, Experian, and Equifax collect, maintain, modify and update information on over 180 million people. They then sell this information, along with your credit rating score, to organizations such as retailers, banks, insurance companies and even employers.
Other information gathered may include your mortgage payment records and public records such as court judgments, tax liens, foreclosures and bankruptcies. They do not include your income or monthly rent payments, utilities or doctor bills.
Virtually every time you fill out a credit application, apply for a loan, various types of insurance or even fill out an application for employment, your credit history as a consumer for the last seven years is sold to that organization. Despite the obvious privacy issues involved with this type of reporting, our government has deemed this process to be necessary and legal.
However, our government has enacted laws to assist consumers and prevent debt collectors and credit reporting agencies from using unfair reporting practices and undertaking other abuses.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act
The Fair Credit reporting Act, (FCRA), regulates how your credit history is kept, used and shared by creditors, credit reporting agencies and other organizations. It was established by the Federal Trade Commission to promote accuracy and ensure privacy in the use of credit reports. Unfortunately, the FCRA does not provide for the policing of 180 million credit reports, so each individual consumer is responsible for the accuracy of his or her own report.
Even more sobering is the fact that there is likely a mistake in your credit report right now. It may be a minor error or lag in reporting, but you will never know until you order your credit report.
Consumers should order a copy of their credit report annually to review the report for accuracy and timeliness. A mistake in your report could lower your credit rating and prevent you from being approved for credit or cost you money in increased interest. You can find the complete text of the FCRA at the Federal Trade Commission web site (http://www.ftc.gov.) Under the FCRA, you have a wide variety of rights as a consumer and you can use the rules to clean up your credit report and ensure that you aren't taken advantage of by credit reporting agencies.
How to check your credit
At your request, any credit reporting agency must provide you with the information in your file as well as a list of everyone who has requested it. There is no charge for the report if a person has taken action against you because of information supplied by the credit reporting agency, as long as you request the report withing 60 days of receiving notice of the action.
You are also entitled to one free report every twelve months upon request if you certify that (1) you are unemployed and plan to seek employment within 60 days, (2) your are on welfare, or (3) your report is inaccurate due to fraud. You may also get a free report if you were denied credit, employment or insurance within the last 60 days. Otherwise, a credit reporting agency may charge you the current price of $8.50.
Your rights under the FCRA
You must be told if information in your file has been used against you. Anyone who uses information from a credit reporting agency to take action against you, such as denying an application for credit, insurance, or employment – must tell you, and give you the name, address, and phone number of the credit reporting agency that provided the consumer report.
You have the right to dispute inaccurate information with the credit reporting agency. If you tell a credit reporting agency that your file contains inaccurate information, they must investigate the problem (usually within 30 days) by presenting to is source all relevant evidence you submit, unless your dispute is frivolous.
If the credit reporting agency's investigation does not resolve the dispute, you may add a brief statement, up to 100 words, to your file. The credit reporting agency must include a summary of your statement in future reports. If an item is deleted or a dispute statement is filed, you may ask that anyone who has recently received your report be notified of the change.
A credit reporting agency must remove or correct inaccurate or unverified information from its files, usually within 30 days after you dispute it. However, the credit reporting agency is not required to remove accurate data from your file unless it is outdated or cannot be verified.
If your dispute results in any change to your report, the credit reporting agency cannot reinstate into your file a disputed item unless the information source verifies its accuracy and completeness. In addition, the credit reporting agency must give you a written notice telling you it has reinstated the item. The notice must include the name, address and phone number of the information source.
If you tell anyone, such as a creditor who reports to a credit reporting agency, that you dispute an item, they may not then report the information to a credit reporting agency without including a notice of your dispute. Once you've notified the source of the error in writing, it may not continue to report the information if it is, an error.
How will your report affect you?
In most cases, a credit reporting agency may not report negative information that is more than seven years old or ten years for bankruptcies. A credit reporting agency may provide information about you only to people with a need recognized by the credit reporting agency; usually to consider an application with a creditor, insurer, employer, landlord, or other business.
Your consent is required for reports that are provided to employers, or reports that contain medical information. A credit reporting agency may not give out information about you to your employer, or prospective employer, without your written consent. A credit reporting agency may not report medical information about you to creditors, insurers, or employers without your permission.
You may choose to exclude your name from Credit reporting agency lists for unsolicited credit and insurance offers. Creditors and insurers may use file information as the basis for sending you unsolicited offers of credit or insurance. Such offers must include a toll-free phone number for you to call if you want your name and address removed from future lists.
If you call, you must be kept off the lists for two years. If you request, complete, and return the credit reporting agency form provided for this purpose, you must be taken off the lists immediately.
You may seek damages from violators. If a credit reporting agency, a user or in some cases a provider of Credit reporting agency data, violates the credit reporting agency, you may sue them in state or federal court.
Creditors who keep harassing you
On the creditor side of industry, many consumers have been hassled and harassed by overzealous creditors and their agents attempting to collect late or overdue bills.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, (FDCPA), regulates the behavior of debt collectors and prohibits many abuses which have been used on consumers to collect debt.
The most important concept to understand about the FDCPA is that it regulates debt collectors not creditors. For example, if a finance company constantly harasses you about late payments, the FDCPA has no power to curb their behavior or punish them. They are a creditor, not a debt collector. If the finance company hires a debt collection firm to collect a debt from you and that firm overreaches in its methods of collection, that firm may be liable under the FDCPA.
Generally, the FDCPA applies to those who collect debts owed to creditors as their main business. Theses are mainly consumer debts for personal, family and household uses such as auto loans, mortgages, credit cards and doctor bills. A short list of some of the abuses which are specifically forbidden by the FDCPA:
- Contacting you after you've written a letter to the collection agency telling them to stop writing, except to notify you if the debt collector or creditor intends to take some action. Contacting your friends, relatives, employer or other acquaintances, except to find out where you live or work, or tell these people that you owe money;
- Threatening harm on you, threaten your reputation, use profane language or contact you repeatedly an unreasonable amount of times;
- Contact you at unreasonable times, for example before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., or contact you at your place of employment if you tell them that your employer disapproves of the contact;
- Make false statements, including a statement that you may be arrested; or threaten to have money deducted from your paycheck or to sue you, unless the collection agency or creditor actually intends to do so and it is legal to proceed as such.
The bottom line is that you should make a conscious effort to pay your bills on time and contact the creditor when a payment will be late or if you wish to work out some kind of arrangement to temporarily suspend payments because of an unforseen hardship.
Communication is key.
Creditors will often work with you if they are kept abreast of the situation and are updated regularly. Your credit health depends on your understanding of your credit report, your ability to keep it error-free, and to a greater extent on your ability to make timely payments to all creditors.However, no matter what your credit record is, knowledge of the above laws may protect if your debt collectors or credit reporting agencies overstep their bounds.
Strategies to Deal with Debt Collectors
Please see my article to help you deal with debt collectors here.
(Please contact me for a pdf or mailed copy of the full article)
To Obtain Your Credit Report Call The Following:
The three above reporting agencies will be able to assist you in getting a copy of your current credit report. They will also inform you of any fees that you will incur requesting such report.
State Bar of Michigan