The Fair Credit Reporting Act (commonly referred to as the FCRA) is the federal law that requires credit bureaus (also known as consumer reporting agencies) like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to, among other responsibilities, maintain and follow procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of information in consumer reports that they publish about you to, among others, creditors and background check companies.
When you apply for a credit card, automobile loan, or mortgage, the credit check that the lender performs is accomplished by obtaining a consumer report from one or more of the credit bureaus. The FCRA sets forth requirements for who may provide and obtain a consumer report about you.
Often, when you apply for a job, your potential employer will run a background check, typically to see if you have a criminal record. Similarly, if you apply to lease an apartment, your potential landlord may obtain a tenant-screening report about your prior rental history. Although you may not realize it, these background check reports and tenant-screening reports are also consumer reports and therefore, like all consumer reports, are governed by the FCRA.
What can happen when there is less than maximum possible accuracy on my credit report or background check report?
Unfortunately, most people realize that there is an error on their credit report or background check report at the worst possible time. You may have paid every bill on time for your entire life and believe you have perfect credit. Then, you apply for a mortgage on your dream home only to find out that your mortgage application has been denied because a consumer report issued by Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion wrongly shows that you have three accounts in collection. Or you may have finally landed a job you have actively pursued for years. You receive an offer pending a background check report. No problem, right? But then the company informs you that it is sorry, but it has to rescind the offer because the background check report -- which is a form of consumer report -- shows that you have a felony conviction. You have never committed a crime in your life. But the background check report says otherwise. Someone else gets the job.
What can I do about credit report and background check report errors?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act provides many rights to consumers, including the right to dispute inaccuracies. When you dispute a credit report error, consumer reporting agencies (including background check companies) are required by the FCRA to perform a reasonable investigation and delete information that cannot be verified. That is true whether the credit report inaccuracy you are disputing is on a consumer report (on your credit report) or on a background check report. In the case of credit reporting errors, the consumer reporting agency (or credit bureau) also must notify the creditor of your dispute. The creditor, in the parlance of the FCRA, is called a “furnisher” because it furnishes information about you to consumer reporting agencies. Like the consumer reporting agency that receives your dispute, the furnisher must also perform a reasonable investigation. If the furnisher cannot verify that the disputed information is accurate, it must instruct the consumer reporting agency to delete the erroneous information from your credit report.
In theory, a consumer dispute pursuant to the Fair Credit Reporting Act should result in a correction of most inaccurate information on credit reports and background check reports. In reality, the investigations performed by credit bureaus and furnishers are often less than reasonable and errors may remain on your reports. Whether or not your credit reports or background check reports are corrected following your dispute, however, it is always a good idea to speak with an attorney to understand your rights and whether you have been damaged by the ordeal.
How can I check my credit reports?
Each year, the FCRA gives you the right to obtain your full Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion credit reports for free by visiting annualcreditreport.com (during the pandemic those reports have been available for free more often than once a year). If you are unable to obtain your report from that website (which happens sometimes when there are mixed credit files or false information on your reports as a result of identity theft), you can purchase your reports from myfico.com.