By now, you've probably heard about the Big Three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), which monitor your financial history and issue credit reports and credit scores to potential lenders. But did you know that there are dozens of other specialty consumer reporting agencies that track your history for activities that may not appear on your regular credit reports -- things like bounced checks, late utility payments, insurance claims and prescription orders?
Most people never hear about these companies until they're suddenly turned down for an apartment, checking account, insurance policy or even a job or promotion. But you need to know that potential landlords, banks, insurance companies and employers are very likely ordering specialty reports to help them assess the risk of doing business with you.
That's fine if you've got a squeaky-clean track record. But what if their files contain mistakes; or worse, what if someone has hijacked your identity and is poisoning your record with their own bad behavior?
Fortunately, you do have recourse. The same federal Fair Credit Reporting Act that guarantees you the right to access and correct your credit reports also regulates specialty consumer reporting agencies.
This means that you can request a copy of your report once a year from each agency, generally for free. You're also entitled to a free copy upon request whenever an "adverse action" is taken against you because of something in the report. For example, if you're turned down for a checking account, the bank must share the name and contact information of the agency from which it got the derogatory report.
With credit reports, you're entitled to one free copy per year for each of the Big Three bureaus if you order them through the government-authorized AnnualCreditReport.com. (There's a fee if you order directly from the bureaus.) Unfortunately, specialty agencies have no such central clearinghouse, so you need to contact each one individually.
However, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken some of the legwork out by compiling a list of the most commonly used agencies, along with instructions and contact information for ordering your reports. (Another great resource is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's fact sheet on specialty reports.)Specialty consumer reporting agencies operate similarly to the credit bureaus. They collect information about you from various sources and share it with creditors and other businesses, including:
- Public records of criminal and civil cases.
- Your credit history.
- Bankruptcy filings.
- Companies with which you have an existing or prior relationship.
- Your medical information.
- Driving records.
- Check-writing history -- for banks, credit unions and businesses that accept payments by check. They'll look for things like bounced or returned checks and fraud. (Certegy, ChexSystems and TeleCheck.)
- Medical conditions and prescription drug history -- if you're applying for an individual life, long-term care or disability insurance policy. Note: Health insurers can't deny coverage or charge higher premiums because of preexisting conditions. (MIB, Inc. and Milliman IntelliScript.)
- Residential -- landlords checking your tenant history, credit, criminal background, etc. (Contemporary Information Corp., CoreLogic Safe Rent and Tenant Data Services.)
- Auto or homeowner/renter's insurance -- insurers will screen your records for things like traffic violations, claims and property losses. (Insurance Information Exchange, Insurance Services Office and LexisNexis CLUE Report.)
- Payday lending -- creditors investigating people who don't use traditional financial services (banking, credit cards, etc.) might evaluate their alternate lending performance -- payday loans, check-cashing services, prepaid cards, etc. (Clarity Services, DataX and Factor Trust.)
- Utilities -- If you're trying to open a new utility, phone, cable or Internet account. (National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange.)
- Employment background -- By law, employers must obtain your permission to run a background check. Unfortunately, they're generally not required to identify which company they're using unless they decide not to hire you -- it doesn't hurt to ask ahead of time, though. (Major players include LexisNexis, The Work Number, Accurate Background and First Advantage.)
- Not every agency will have records on you, particularly if no previous inquiries have been made.
- As with credit bureaus, specialty agencies don't themselves make decisions about whether to hire or insure you or rent you an apartment -- that's up to the company or individual reviewing your background.
- When you dispute information in your reports, agencies are legally obligated to investigate and correct any inaccurate or outdated information. (For tips on how to dispute errors, see this CFPB article and my previous blog, Fixing Errors on Your Credit Report.)
- Agencies must give you, when asked, an update on the status of your request to view your report. However, there is no time limit on when your request must be processed -- another shortcoming in the regulations.
Even though you're entitled to dozens of free specialty reports each year, ordering them can be a very time-consuming process. Section 14 of this Privacy Clearinghouse fact sheet highlights circumstances when you might want to proactively order them -- for example, if you're shopping for new homeowners or automobile insurance.
If you haven't had any adverse actions taken against you but are curious to see what information is out there, you might want to order your LexisNexis Full File Disclosure. It's one of the more comprehensive databases out there, containing all the information LexisNexis gathers to create its various reports about you. And, like credit reports, you can order one free copy per year.
Bottom line: You might not realize there's false or potentially damaging information being reported about you until you get turned down for a job or insurance. So get in the habit of occasionally ordering specialty consumer reports along with your credit reports.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.