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The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) has a strict limit on who can check your credit and under what circumstance. The law regulates credit reporting and ensures that only business entities with a specific, legitimate purpose, and not members of the general public, can check your credit without written permission.
The circumstances surrounding the release of your financial information vary widely. Knowing when and why someone can check your credit is important to retaining your privacy and making sure people aren't learning more about you than they should. Read on to find out who can check your reports, what permission—if any—they need, and how to stay on top of keeping your personal information private.
Who Can Access My Credit Report?
When you apply for something—like a new line of credit, a new job or an apartment rental—the lender or business you're dealing with may want to look at your credit reports. They do this to evaluate your risk as a consumer and to gain insight into your past financial dealings. In these cases, most entities are required to ask for your permission before pulling your credit reports.
The following are examples of entities that often request permission to check your credit as a result of an application or initiation of some sort of business relationship:
- Banks and other lenders
- Utility companies
- Insurance companies
Who Can Check My Credit Without Permission?
In most of the cases above, the entities will need your permission to request and view your credit reports. There are some situations, however, in which a business will check your credit through a soft inquiry, also known as a soft pull, to determine whether you're eligible for a preapproved offer. In many cases, businesses with a legitimate reason can initiate a soft pull without your permission. (If you've received a targeted credit card offer in the mail, it was probably a result of a soft pull by a lender.)
Soft inquiries do not affect your credit score and can only be seen by you, except: (1) insurance companies may be able to see other insurance company inquiries; and (2) inquiries by debt settlement companies you have authorized to access your report may be shared with your current creditors. Hard inquiries—which occur when you authorize an entity to check your credit—remain in your credit file for up to two years and can be seen by anyone else who views your credit report.
Beyond soft pulls, there are other situations in which an entity may not need your permission to check your credit. According to the FCRA, some of those situations could be:
- In response to a court order or federal grand jury subpoena
- In connection with your application for a license or other benefit granted by the government, when consideration of financial responsibility is required by law
- In connection with a child support determination, under certain circumstances
- In connection with a credit or insurance transaction not initiated by you, when a firm offer of credit or insurance is extended, and certain other restrictions are met
- For the purposes of a potential investor assessing the risk of a current obligation
How Do I Know if My Credit Was Checked?
There is a section in your credit reports that tells you exactly who has checked your credit and when. Periodically monitoring your credit can help you understand who is looking at your credit reports and can help you make sure that no one is requesting your personal information without your permission. It can also help you avoid letting any fraudsters open bogus accounts under your name.
You can learn more about how to read your credit reports and can get a free copy of your credit reports and scores through Experian to learn more about how many inquiries, if any, appear in your credit file.
How Does a Credit Check Affect My Credit Score?
Checking your own credit does not affect your credit score. Pulling your own reports is considered a soft inquiry and will not impact your score. Hard inquiries—or ones that are triggered by a new credit application—remain in your credit reports for up to two years and have the potential to impact your score. The effect they have on your score will depend on other features of your credit, but typically the impact, if any, will disappear or diminish within one year.
What Can I Do to Keep Someone From Getting My Credit Report?
Be vigilant and make sure to check your credit often so you know who is viewing your credit reports. This can help you keep track of your credit applications and can also protect you from fraud, as a new hard inquiry could indicate that a fraudster tried to open an account in your name.
Make sure you read all the fine print when applying for products or services and when inquiring about new credit. It may be unclear when a hard inquiry will be recorded as a result of an application or request, so it's helpful to read carefully to make sure you're not racking up inquiries without knowing it.
If you're not sure who has checked your credit it the past two years, get a free copy of your credit report from Experian to see what appears. You can also check out Experian's CreditWorksSM product to learn how you can periodically monitor your credit file and be alerted when changes occur in your credit file.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on May 14, 2019, and has been updated.