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Some businesses and organizations may be able to view your credit reports without your permission. They're only allowed to do so in certain circumstances, however, and the action won't impact your credit. Here's what you need to know.
How Businesses Check Your Credit
Businesses can check your credit by requesting a copy of your credit report from one of the major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion or Equifax. When this happens, a record of the credit check is added to your credit report and remains there for two years.
When the credit inquiry is the result of you applying for credit and giving a business permission to check your report, a hard inquiry is recorded on your credit report. Hard inquiries stay on credit reports for about two years and may have a small, negative impact on your credit scores. Other businesses will also be able to see these hard inquiries when they check your credit.
When a company checks your credit report to make a promotional offer or when your lender conducts periodic reviews of your existing credit accounts, it is called a soft inquiry. Soft inquiries also occur when you check your own credit report or when you use credit monitoring services from companies like Experian. These inquiries do not impact your credit score.
When Businesses Can Check Your Credit Without Permission
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law that governs what's allowed in your credit report and who can request a copy of your credit report. To get a copy of your credit report, a business needs to have a "permissible purpose" as defined by the FCRA.
If you apply for a loan, credit card or insurance, you may have to give the company permission to check your credit report as part of submitting the application. Some employers may also ask you for permission to check your credit as part of the interview process.
The FCRA gives some people and organizations the right to check your credit without your permission in certain circumstances:
- When responding to a court order or federal grand jury subpoena.
- To review an account you already opened with the business (although you may have given the business this permission when you first applied).
- If you applied for a license or other government benefit and there's a law that requires the organization to consider your financial responsibility or status.
- When an agency needs to use your credit report to determine or modify a child support award.
- When sending prescreened firm offers of credit for a new credit account or insurance policy.
The person or organization requesting your credit report has to tell the credit bureau what permissible purpose allows them to request your credit report. And they can only use your credit report for that purpose.
What to Do if You Don't Recognize a Hard Inquiry
You might see soft inquiries when you check your own credit report, and won't necessarily recognize the names of the companies. Generally, that's not cause for concern. However, if you check your credit report and notice a hard inquiry (it may be in a different section of your report) from a company you don't recognize, that could be a problem.
Sometimes companies operate under several names, and it might be a legitimate hard inquiry from a recent credit application you submitted. Otherwise, the hard inquiry might be an indication that someone else tried to apply for credit using your information.
When the latter is the case, you can submit a dispute to the credit bureau and ask it to remove the hard inquiry. You should also reach out to the company that pulled your credit and make sure an account wasn't opened without your permission. (Here are five steps you can take if an account was opened.)
Although dealing with identity theft and fraud can be difficult, removing a hard inquiry that's the result of fraud can be a fairly straightforward process. But remember, you can't remove hard inquiries that come from your applications for credit—you have to wait until they fall off your credit report.
Get Your Free Credit Report
You should periodically review your credit reports for hard inquiries and new accounts to make sure no one has opened an account in your name. You can get a free credit report from each of the bureaus once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Experian also offers free access to your Experian credit report online. Once you create an account, you can get an updated credit report once every 30 days, receive free credit monitoring (with notifications if there are major changes) and send a dispute from your online account for free.