With so much personal information now available through websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, it sometimes seems like privacy is a thing of the past. Luckily, access to your credit report is more guarded.

A federal law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) protects the information in your credit report, which includes your personal details and financial history.

Friends and family cannot see your credit report without your written permission, and others who want to see your credit report must have a legitimate reason, or a “permissible purpose,” to do so. The FCRA specifies that anyone who obtains your credit report under false pretenses could go to jail for up to two years.

Who can pull a copy of my credit report?

According to the Federal Trade Commission, information in your credit report is sold by the three credit reporting agencies to creditors, insurers, collection agencies and other businesses who use it to evaluate any application for credit, insurance, home purchase or apartment rental. Examples of when your credit report may be viewed include:

  • If you apply for a new credit card;
  • If you apply to buy a home, or rent or lease an apartment;
  • If you apply for government benefits (but only if the agency is required to consider your financial status in the application);
  • If you apply for a job or are being considered for a promotion, reassignment or retention (but your employer must get your written consent first).

With permission, a requester can view your credit report and see a complete history of your credit accounts, assessments and collections, as well as any past student loan defaults, lawsuits or bankruptcies.

How do creditors obtain a copy of my credit report?

To obtain a copy of your credit report, businesses, creditors and lenders buy memberships to the three national credit reporting agencies. When a third party wants to see your credit report, it makes either a “hard” or “soft” inquiry.

If you are applying for new credit, such as for a credit card or a loan, then the lender will make a hard inquiry. In contrast, soft inquiries are initiated by the lender for products such as preapproved loans, preapproved credit cards and other solicitations.

Unlike soft inquiries, hard inquiries temporarily lower your credit score. Fred Elsberry, president of the Better Business Bureau in metro Atlanta, recommends that consumers beware of requesting too much credit at one time, which would lead to numerous hard inquiries.

“If you are seeking credit and they are trying to verify the information, then too many of those will hurt your credit score. A lot of activity trying to get credit will raise a red flag for people,” he says.

Once an inquiry has been made and your credit report has been received, the lender’s name will be listed under the “Inquiry Information” section of your credit report, so that you and others can see who has viewed it. If you find that your credit report has been obtained outside the FCRA guidelines, you should contact the three national credit reporting agencies immediately. If you suspect fraud or identity theft, you should also consider contacting law enforcement.

How do I make sure the information in my credit report is correct?

Since banks, businesses, agencies and sometimes even employers might be requesting your credit report, make sure to confirm that the information they will be receiving is accurate and up to date.

The FCRA requires that each of the three national credit reporting agencies allows you to order one free copy of your credit report every 12 months. You can request a copy of your free credit report online through annualcreditreport.com, or you can call 1-877-322-8228. You can also complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.