Q: Why does having a good credit record matter?
A: Unless you live in a “cash only” world, being able to get credit is critical to buying almost anything. Virtually all major purchases in life require you to get credit from a lender. Before giving you credit, a lender will check your credit record with one or more of the three credit reporting agencies that keep credit data on millions of American consumers like you.
Q: Who checks my credit?
A: Your credit history can be checked out when you apply for any kind of credit, a job, insurance, or even an apartment lease. Lenders can consider your credit record as long you are treated fairly and the same as others who are applying for credit. Sometimes, however, things happen that can hurt your credit. Job loss, income decline, illness, or even something a computer error can harm your credit record.
Q: Are there laws that protect me when I apply for or use credit?
A: Yes. Federal credit protection laws exist to make sure you get a fair shake when you get credit, use credit and maintain your credit record.
Q: What does the credit record law say and how is it enforced?
A: The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires credit reporting agencies to keep accurate information that stays private. Basically, this law says how credit data gets reported and maintained to be sure it is accurate and used properly. If the law is violated, though, you generally must handle the issue yourself or consult a local attorney for help. If you do consult an attorney, the law says you have the right to make the other side pay your attorney fees if you win your case.
Q: Can I get a copy of my credit record to see if it is correct?
A: Yes. There are three consumer credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion), and each of them must give you a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months if you ask for it. You also have a right to a free copy if your credit application is turned down or if you cannot get a job or insurance because of a credit report. But you have to ask for a report within 60 days of receiving a turn down notice. The notice that is sent to you will give you the contact information for the credit reporting agency whose report caused your denial. That way you know who to contact.
Q: How do I get a free copy of my credit report?
A: Call the official toll-free number (877- 322-8228) or go to www.annualcreditreport.com, where you can order your reports directly. Fake credit report websites do exist, so do not give out any credit card information to get your report. The official website does not ask for any credit card information.
Q: I am unemployed. Do I have to pay for my credit report?
A: If you are unemployed, you can get one free report a year as long as you plan to look for a job within 60 days. If you are on welfare or if your credit report is inaccurate because of fraud (including identity theft), then you are also entitled to one free copy of your credit report each year.
Q: What if my credit record has an error on it?
A: If your credit record contains errors or there is false information on your credit report, tell the credit agency. The agency must investigate the accuracy of your record. If the information turns out to be accurate, then you cannot remove it from your record legally. That information will only come off your record after a period of time.
Q: How long can negative information be kept on my credit record?
A: Most negative information can be put on your credit record and kept there for seven years. If a judgment is taken against you, it can be reported on your credit record for seven years. Bankruptcy information is allowed to be kept on your credit record for 10 years. Criminal records can appear on credit reports for an indefinite period of time.
Q: What can I do if I can’t pay credit card bills?
A: If you are having problems with bills, contact your creditor immediately. Try to work out some sort of payment plan that allows you to make lower payments that you can handle. Do not wait until your account is turned over to a debt collector. Debt collectors are almost always much more difficult to deal with than the creditors themselves.
Q: Where can I get more information about my credit rights?
A: Visit the Federal Reserve Board’s website at www.federalreserve.gov or the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.ftc.gov.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Dayton attorney Ronald L Burdge of Burdge Law Office Co., LPA.