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You have the right to request your consumer reports

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Like many consumers, you may be aware that a credit report provides you with a useful summary of your credit history. What you may not be aware of is where and how to actually request your credit report, and what your rights are with your consumer reports.

Every year, we update and publish a list of consumer reporting companies. Today, we present you with the 2016 edition of our list, which includes the following features:

  • Information to request a report. This includes the latest company name and contact information from the three largest nationwide consumer reporting companies and dozens of specialty reporting companies. We sort the companies by specialty (e.g., employment, tenant, bank, subprime, insurance, medical).
  • New tips on which specialty reports might be important for you to fact-check depending on your specific situation. Did you know that outside of employment screening, consumer report users provide you with a notification about the reasons why the report user is taking adverse action only after the fact when, for example, you have already been rejected for a loan or residential rental property?
  • New information about how consumer reporting companies make sure you are who you say you are before they will give you your reports, and the types of questions they might ask to authenticate your identity.
  • Companies that will provide free scores along with free reports. Not many do, but there are a few.

Did you know?

  • You should fact-check your credit reports for free from the three largest nationwide consumer reporting companies every twelve months.
  • You should fact-check your specialty consumer reports during important life events and situations, such as when applying for a job, rental home, or at other times like when applying for a new bank account or insurance policy.
  • In prior years, this list has referred to consumer reporting businesses as “agencies” or “bureaus.” These terms can be confusing because they make it sound as if these businesses might be part of the government. But they are not. They are private-sector companies which are overwhelmingly for-profit. In our list, we call them “companies” for greater clarity.

Your Rights with your Consumer Reports

Finally, when it comes to your own consumer reports, you have the legal right to:

  • obtain the information in your consumer reports, and
  • dispute inaccuracies with the consumer reporting companies and those who gave them the information.

A few years ago, we published a CFPB bulletin that highlighted the legal requirement that certain consumer reporting companies must establish and manage “a streamlined process for consumers to request consumer reports.” Our single, user-friendly list of companies makes it easier for you to make the first move.

6 tips for using your credit card this season

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Your favorite store is having a holiday sale. You’ve bought all your items on your shopping list, but you’re tempted to peek in the store to look for a few last minute gifts. You also realized that you’re a little short with cash on hand. How will you pay for these purchases? If you’re like many Americans, you might use your credit card.

More than 60 percent of adults own at least one credit card. If you have a card, you might have been using it a lot lately to purchase gifts, meals, and travel expenses. Credit cards can help you build and maintain good credit, as long as you use your cards responsibly and pay your bills on time each month. That’s why we’re sharing six tips you should keep in mind when using your credit card this season—or any time.

1. Pay your bills on time

Pay your bills on time, every time. One way to make sure your payments are on time is to set up automatic payments. But, you have to watch your bank balance to make sure you have enough money in your account to cover the automatic payments. Also, if you can afford to pay more than the minimum amount, you can pay off your debt quicker. Keep in mind that people with the best credit scores usually are those who pay off their credit cards in full every month.

2. Don’t get too close to your credit limit

Credit scoring models look at how close you are to being “maxed out,” because the formulas predict that people who are using too much of their available credit may have future trouble with repayment. If you use too much of your total credit lines, you can hurt your credit score. Experts advise keeping your use of credit at no more than 30 percent or less of your total credit limit.

3. Get your free credit report every year

Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to get a free copy of your credit report from each of the nationwide credit reporting companies. You can receive a free credit report from each reporting company once every 12 months. By requesting the reports at the same time, you can determine whether any of your files have errors. By requesting the reports separately, you can monitor your credit files more frequently throughout the year.

4. Read your credit report and dispute any errors

Identity theft and fraud is on the rise, so it’s important to check your credit report and dispute any errors immediately. If you find something wrong with your credit report, write to both the consumer reporting agency and the creditor that provided the information, if applicable, to tell them what you think is wrong and why. Include copies of any documents that support your position. When a consumer disputes credit report information, the agency and the creditor generally have to investigate the dispute and correct inaccurate information. Take a look at more information on how to submit a dispute.

5. Avoid paying upfront fees to “repair” your negative credit history

There are many places that promise to “repair” or “fix” your credit for an upfront fee but no one can remove negative information, such as late payments, from a credit report if it is accurate. You can only get your credit report fixed if it contains errors and you can do that on your own.

6. Be proactive

First, it’s important that you act right away. You do not need to be behind on your payments to ask for help, and many creditors may be willing to help if you’re facing a financial emergency.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Add up your income and expenses. Look for ways to cut costs. If you can’t find enough to pay your minimum payment, decide how much you can afford to pay.
  2. Call your credit card company. Be sure to clearly explain:
    1. Why you can’t pay the minimum.
    2. How much you can afford to pay.
    3. When you could restart your normal payments.
  3. Consider credit counseling. If you need more help, credit counseling organizations can teach you more about handling your money. Many credit counseling organizations are non-profit. Before you sign up, ask if you’ll be charged, how much, and what services will be provided. Watch out for for-profit debt relief companies that:
    1. Charge fees before they settle your debts.
    2. Give a guarantee that they can make your debt go away.
    3. Tell you to stop communicating with creditors.

If you’re having a problem with credit cards, you can submit a complaint to the CFPB at consumerfinance.gov/complaint or call (855) 411-2372 toll-free.

Have questions about credit cards or other consumer financial products and services? Find answers at consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb.

Consumer advisory: Fact-check your specialty consumer report

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You probably already know that when you apply for a loan, many lenders will get information about your credit history from one of the big three consumer reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). This information can determine whether you are eligible for a loan and how much the loan will cost.

But did you know that there are other consumer reporting agencies that also collect and sell your personal data? Some of these companies, called specialty consumer reporting agencies, compile and sell reports with all kinds of personal data including, but not limited to, the history of your employment, rental, banking, lending, insurance, and criminal background. This includes other public record data such as tax liens, civil suits and bankruptcy data.

We’ve got a list of consumer reporting agencies, so you can fact-check them to ensure your personal report data is accurate and complete.

Why you should know what’s in your reports

If you’re applying for a job, planning to rent an apartment, or purchasing property or health insurance, you might want to check and see if one of these specialty consumer reporting agencies has a file with your information. It may also be useful if you’re applying for a checking account, or had problems with utility bills. For example, if you are applying for a lease, one of your “tenant screening” specialty reports might be reviewed by the landlord. Keep in mind that not every consumer reporting agency will have information on every consumer.

Check reports in advance

When it comes to your personal data, all consumer reporting agencies are required to follow reasonable procedures to ensure that the information in your report is accurate, but errors can happen. You should fact-check your report in advance, allowing sufficient time for companies to investigate and fix errors. Once you notify a consumer reporting agency of a potential error on your report, the agency generally has thirty days to investigate and fix the errors on your report. After completing the investigation, they generally have five business days to notify you of its results.

The last thing you want is an unpleasant surprise that may disqualify you from a loan, job or a new lease. You’re in the best position to know whether the information in your personal reports is accurate and complete.

How to request and dispute a report

Here’s a list of consumer reporting agencies, complete with the contact information, (including the phone numbers and websites), for nearly fifty companies. By law, consumer reporting agencies must provide you a copy of your report upon request. Most of the companies in this list provide reports for free once every twelve months (as indicated on the list) though others may charge you a small fee. If you spot any errors, you have the right to dispute the report’s content with the consumer reporting agency and the company that provided the data. The companies are required to investigate your dispute for free.

Check out Ask CFPB for more information about specialty consumer reporting agencies. You can also download a printer-friendly version of this information to share with friends or clients. If you have a problem with credit reporting or any other financial product, you can submit a complaint to us online.

Millions of consumers will now have access to credit scores and reports through nonprofit counselors

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Update as of June 2015: All three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) will now allow nonprofit counselors to share credits reports, as well as the scores, with the consumer.

Millions of consumers will now be able to receive the credit scores and credit reports that nonprofit credit counselors purchase on their behalf.

Nonprofit organizations that offer credit counseling, housing counseling, and other financial counseling services buy credit reports and scores for the consumers they serve. These reports and scores help counselors engage in constructive conversations with their clients about steps the clients can take to improve their financial situation.

Until now, counseling organizations have generally been prohibited by their contracts with the credit reporting agencies from giving the consumer the credit report or score that they have purchased on that consumer’s behalf. For example, a nonprofit organization that purchases a credit report with a FICO credit score has typically signed a three-way agreement with one of the three large credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian) and FICO, agreeing not to provide the report or score to any entity, including the consumer.

This no-sharing policy is common in contracts signed by business users of credit reports and scores. But when applied to consumer counseling, it limits a client’s ability to review the credit history provided by the counselor on their own and may make the consumer more dependent on the counselor to take steps to manage or improve her credit standing. We’ve heard concerns about this issue from counselors and consumers across the country.

A policy change that will affect millions of consumers

FICO’s announcement today signals a change in this policy. FICO has reached new agreements with the three credit reporting agencies that will allow millions of consumers who receive nonprofit credit counseling, housing counseling, and other services to obtain a copy of the FICO score that these organizations have purchased. We’ve been working with industry to make progress on these issues and we are encouraged by this positive step. FICO has taken the additional step to create content to help these consumers understand the key factors that influence their credit scores.

A step in the right direction

These efforts build on our open credit score initiative, which is helping to increase consumers’ access to credit scores and credit reports and empower consumers to improve their financial lives. Last year, we launched this initiative by calling on more of the nation’s top credit card companies to make credit scores freely available to their customers. Today, more than a dozen major credit card issuers are providing credit scores directly and freely to consumers, and they are increasingly being joined by other types of consumer lenders as well.

As part of this ongoing effort, we brought counseling organizations’ concerns about restrictions on their clients’ access to credit information to the attention of the credit reporting companies and FICO and urged that these restrictions be removed. However, even with the policy change on FICO credit scores, individual contracts between the credit reporting agencies and counseling organizations still prohibited the organizations from sharing the credit reports with their clients. This restriction made it harder for counselors to do their job. And it kept the consumers they serve from benefiting fully from the credit information that the counseling service organizations have paid for.

We are encouraged that, as part of this ongoing effort to press forward on these issues, Experian, Trans Union, and Equifax have updated their policies. Nonprofit counselors that purchase credit reports on behalf of their consumer clients will now be able to share those reports, as well as the scores, with the consumer.

Ending restrictions on sharing credit scores and reports by consumer financial counseling organizations will empower consumers to take more control of managing their credit and help counselors to do their jobs more effectively.

Learn more about credit reports and credit scores on Ask CFPB. Also, remember that consumers can always obtain a free annual copy of their credit reports.

Consumer Advisory: 7 ways to keep medical debt in check

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Debt collection is the top complaint we’ve received since September 2013. Out of all debt types, medical collections make up 52 percent of collection accounts on credit reports, far outpacing all other types of debt.

Medical collections are so widespread, that an estimated 43 million consumers with an account in collection have medical debt. We analyzed medical collections in our latest report, to explain why medical debt is affecting so many more credit reports than any other type of debt. You can read more about how medical debt hurts your credit report.

Here are steps you can take to keep medical debt in check:

1. Review medical bills carefully

If you don’t recognize the provider, check the date of service to see if you had a medical treatment on that day. For more complicated procedures, ask for an itemized bill from the provider in order to check how much you were charged for each service. Some providers who bill you directly may have been associated with a hospital where you were treated, so you may not have known you were receiving services from them at the time you were being treated.

2. Get documentation

Prepare an organized record of all bills. If you need to dispute a bill, send a written notice to the provider and include a copy of all relevant documents, such as records from doctors’ offices or credit card statements. Do not send original documents.

3. Check your health insurance policy and make sure your provider has your correct insurance info

You should know what your insurance covers, and what it doesn’t – but first your insurance information needs to be up-to-date and accurate! A small mix up can lead to big bills for expenses that your insurance should have covered.

4. Act quickly to resolve or dispute the medical bills that you receive

If you have verified you owe the bill, try to resolve it right away. Verify whether an insurer is paying for all or part of a bill. If you delay the bill and let it end up in collections, it can have a significant impact on your credit score. If you don’t owe the bill, act quickly to dispute it.

5. Negotiate your bill

Hospitals may negotiate the amount of the bill with you. The tab may be reduced if you pay the whole amount up front. You can also try asking for the rate that people who have insurance get. The hospital might also offer a plan that enables you to pay off the debt in installments at no interest. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

6. Get financial assistance or support

Many hospitals have financial assistance programs, which may be called “charity care,” if you are unable to pay your bill. Check the deadlines, which can vary.

7. Don’t put medical bills on your credit card, if you can’t pay it

If you can’t immediately pay off a high debt on your credit card bill, you will be charged high interest, and it will look like regular debt to other creditors. Instead, ask your medical provider for a payment plan with little or no interest.

Related information about debt collection

Check out Ask CFPB to learn more about your debt collection rights and to learn about medical credit cards.

If you’re dealing with debt in general, you can consider finding a reputable credit counseling agency.

Good credit – I want that!

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Did you know that there are now dating websites where potential partners provide their credit score for you to check out? People know it’s important to have good credit. But, there’s still a lot of confusion about how to actually build and keep a good credit report.

First of all, what is a credit report?

In a nutshell, it’s a report that looks at some of your bill-paying history, your applications for credit, and public-record information about you like bankruptcies, liens, and foreclosures.

Credit-reporting companies (the big three are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) collect this information, organize it into reports, and sell the reports to businesses so they can make decisions about whether to lend to you, and at what rate. Businesses believe that how you’ve handled credit in the past predicts how you will handle credit in the future – and how risky it would be to take you on as a customer.

Based on your credit reports, you will be given a credit score by the credit-reporting companies. You don’t just have one credit score – each company does their own. And there can be other scores, too; the ones businesses use most are calculated for each of your credit reports using formulas from the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO.) Lenders use these scores as a quick and convenient way to decide whether or not to do business with you, or on what terms. A low credit score can lead to things like your being turned down when you want to rent an apartment, paying a bigger deposit for a cell phone contract, or being charged a higher rate of interest for a car loan or credit card.

Don’t forget that credit reports are also sometimes used by employers to decide whether or not they want to hire you. And, the military looks at credit reports when deciding if you’re eligible to get or keep a security clearance.

So, what builds good credit?

  • Pay your bills on time, every time. An automatic payment from your bank can be a good way to do that, but make sure you keep an eye on your balance so you always have enough in your account to cover the payment. You don’t want it to bounce.
  • Don’t get too close to your credit limit. Credit scoring models look at how close you are to being “maxed out” on credit cards. If you use too much of your total credit lines, say by carrying big balances, you can hurt your credit score. Experts advise keeping your use of credit at no more than 30% of your total credit limit – some even say you should keep it at less than 10%.
  • Don’t apply for too much credit in a short time. Your credit score may go down if you apply for or open a lot of new accounts in a short time. Buying something and want the discount that comes with opening a new store card? Transferring balances from an old card to a new one? Do that very often and it will show up on your credit report as lots of new credit accounts, which is likely to hurt your credit score.
  • The more extensive your credit history, the better. Credit scores are partly based on experience over time. The more evidence you have on how you get and pay for credit, the more information there is to determine whether you are a good credit risk.

Here are some more ideas:

  • Buying things with a debit card or cash will not build your credit score. Some people are afraid of getting into trouble with credit cards, so they vow never to have one. The problem is, buying things with cash or using a debit card doesn’t establish a credit repayment history that will be reported to a credit-reporting company. So when you do need a loan for a big-ticket item like a car or home, you won’t have the credit file to make a lender willing to take a chance on you.
  • Pay with a credit card to build credit but try not to carry a balance and make sure you pay your bill on time. You’ll build credit by using your credit card even if you pay off your balances in full each month. And, you’ll avoid finance charges since these only kick in when you carry over a balance from month to month, which is what happens when you pay only the minimum amount due or any other amount less than the full balance owed each month.
  • If you can’t qualify for a regular credit card, a “secured card account” that you put a deposit on can build credit, too. You can get a secured card from many banks or credit unions. With most of these cards your credit line starts out small, but as you demonstrate reliable payments, most companies will extend you more credit and eventually refund your deposit. Secured cards can be expensive and often come with a number of different fees, though, so before you resort to a secured card consider applying to see if you can be approved for a regular credit card with attractive features and pricing.
  • File an “active-duty alert” with the credit-reporting companies before you go on deployment. This makes businesses verify your identity before they issue credit in your name and should help protect you from identity theft. If you want to go even farther, you can freeze your credit. A freeze prevents prospective creditors from accessing your credit file at all, which will keep any new accounts from being opened in your name. There may be a small charge to set up a freeze, unless you are a victim of identity theft. If you decide to freeze your credit, you’ll have to set up the freezes separately with each of the three big credit-reporting companies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
  • Keep an eye on your credit reports. You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting companies every year at www.annualcreditreport.com. There’s a chance you may find incorrect information that is bringing your score down. If you do, file a dispute with the credit-reporting company.

For more information about credit reports and credit scores visit Ask CFPB at www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb.