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Ever heard of DataX, FactorTrust, ChexSystems, or C.L.U.E.? They almost certainly have heard of you. Because of what they know about you – they could cost you a house, a car, insurance a checking account, or a job -- you should know about them.
Most folks know they should check their credit report on a regular basis. And many folks might know they should check all three credit reports that might impact their ability to borrow money, compiled by three firms which might sound familiar: Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union.
Mistakes on those reports can really cost you, so it's a good thing you are allowed to see what's in them.
But most folks don't know there are dozens of other credit reports maintained by a handful of low-profile companies. These track everything from your check-writing habits to your health insurance claims. Mistakes on these other credit reports can be just as financially painful. Consumers have the right to see what's in these reports too, but that right is useless to consumers who've never heard of the companies involved. That's why American consumers should know a lot more about what are called "specialty credit reports" in the industry.
Any entity that tracks information about consumers for use in decisions about credit, insurance or employment is considered a credit bureau under the terms of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Here is a broader list of what kind of data is collected by specialty credit reporting agencies.
- Opening or using bank accounts (including writing or bouncing checks or overdrafts)
- Apartment rental payments
- Car insurance claims
- Homeowners and renters insurance claims
- Payday lending
- Utility payments
- Phone bill payments
- Medical records or payments
While we generally think of lenders accessing our credit reports before we apply for a car loan or a credit card, a long list of companies from wide-ranging industries can see our specialty credit reports. Here's just a sample of circumstances when that might happen.
- Employers and others such as government agencies performing employment and background screening
- Communications and utility companies (mobile phone; pay TV, electric, gas, water) for utility bill repayment screening
- Retail stores for product return fraud and abuse screening.
There are thriving industries in "backgrounding" people under all sorts of circumstances. Employment background checks are the most obvious, but as the list above shows, plenty of companies take advantage of the opportunity they now have to know as much about you as they can before they do business with you.
You should be armed with the same information.
It's a mistake to go into a transaction with a company without knowing what they know about you. For example: You've probably heard the advice that you should Google yourself when you are job hunting, just to see what a potential employer or interviewer might discover about you while browsing the web. But that's not enough. Job hunters should visit at least one employment screening company -- and probably several -- to see what kind of dirt might be littering their background screening report.
In many cases, like the standard credit report, these specialty credit reports can be obtained for free.
Where do I find specialty credit reporting companies?
Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a report that offered details about 50 or so specialty credit report companies, including instructions on how to obtain reports from them. The list is not comprehensive; the industry is ever changing, so many entities come and go. Still, it's a good place to start.
The CFPB report lists 14 employment screening companies: from Accurate Background to HireRight to Pre-employ.com to The Work Number. Anyone applying for a job should work through several entities on that list and at least get a good grasp on what potential employers might see when they order an employment screening report.
That's true to apartment hunters, too. The CFPB lists 8 tenant screening services. If there's bad news in your past, it's better to know about it and be ready to explain it to a potential landlord. And if there's a mistake -- perhaps you are the victim of ID theft or just a typo -- you need to get it fixed immediately.
The other main sectors of specialty reports involve categories like bank account screening, past insurance claims, utilities, retail store returns, and even gambling.
How to get the reports
The process to obtain specialty credit reports bears some similarity to the process of getting your standard credit report, but there are key differences. There is no central clearinghouse for specialty reports, comparable to free site AnnualCreditReport.com (there should be!). So consumers must appeal directly to each specialty firm. Generally, that means supplying a Social Security number and other authenticating information.
Upon the request of an individual, Federal law requires these nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies to provide one free annual credit report disclosure every 12 months. But the details of the process can vary. Some firms have easy-to-use web portals. Some require that requests be snail mailed, or phoned in. The CFPB paper linked above contains instructions for the companies it mentions.
A New York-based consumer rights law firm, Winston Law, has a separate website devoted to helping consumers find specialty credit reports and apply to see them called SpecialtyCreditReports.com. The site has instructions on obtaining 78 specialty reports, including some that aren't listed in the CFPB report. In most cases, the reports are free, as are the request forms on Winston's website.
Insedia.com is working with Winston's site to simplify that process. Here's a bulletin board at Insedia devoted to discussion about what happens when consumers try to get their reports. “A community of people sharing ideas and thoughts definitely will improve access to these reports since many companies don’t readily offer up the information,” explains Daniel Clements, President of Insedia.
As with standard credit reports, consumers have the right to fix errors that appear in these other reports. That means filing a formal dispute. You might be able to do this via a form on the firm's website. If not, you must send a certified letter including:
- Complete name
- Telephone number
- Report confirmation number, if available
- Account number for any account you may be disputing.
It's a good idea to include a copy of the report with the item you are disputing clearly indicated.
More details on the dispute process can be found here.
If the dispute process leaves you unsatisfied, you can complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about that. You can find instructions for that here.
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