You’re not the only one looking at your credit report. In fact, you only get access to one free check from each credit bureau each year under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. For the vast majority of the year, there are a bunch of other eyes on your file. But who are they, and what are they looking for?
Who Looks at Your Credit Report and Score?
There are a number of different types of businesses that can access your credit report and score. Generally, they have to have a legitimate business need for looking into your credit file, whether it is to make business or lending decisions. Different types of businesses that look into your credit report and score include:
Many banks check your credit reports before they approve you for a new account. Even if you are not applying for a credit card, the financial institution wants to know how responsible you are as a customer. If you have not historically made on-time payments, or if you rely too heavily on your lines of credit, this might foreshadow to banks that you will overdraw your account or leave it in poor standing for a considerable amount of time.
If you opt into overdraft protection, you can also expect the bank to perform a credit check as the service is technically a line of credit. When the bank covers a transaction that would cause your account to fall into the negative, they are essentially issuing you a temporary loan that you are on the hook to pay back. Your credit history provides them a look into how you’ve handled your debts in the past so they can decide whether you are responsible enough to have access to overdraft protection.
Like banks, creditors also have a vested interest in your credit. Common creditors who peek into your credit reports and scores include credit card companies, mortgage lenders, and auto lenders. They want to get a sense of your creditworthiness before approving you for a loan or line of credit.
Further, potential lenders use the information in your credit report as well as your credit score to set your terms and interest rates. In general, the better your credit score, the more favorable and lower your rates will be to reflect your responsible use of credit.
Student loan providers
In addition to traditional lenders, student loan providers also check credit reports and credit scores in several different scenarios. If you are a parent applying for a PLUS loan, student loan providers will take your credit history into consideration before approving the loan. Your credit file may get pulled by student loan providers whether you apply for a federal loan or private loan, and whether you’ve set up a repayment plan can determine your access to financial assistance.
When signing up for insurance, the insurance company will take a close look at your credit score to determine how reliable you are with payments and managing your accounts. Potential customers reap the benefits, as they’re rewarded by insurance companies with lower monthly insurance payments to reflect their good behavior with credit.
If you’ve had an account sent to a collection agency, the agency will look into your credit report for personal or contact information and payment information. This information helps them get ahold of you and determine whether you’re likely to repay the amount that you owe or whether you’re more likely to default.
Agencies on the government level can have access to your credit report for any number of reasons. For instance, government agencies could be looking for:
- Contact information to reach you
- Evidence of your income or assets before approving you for government assistance
- How much you can afford to pay in child care
Generally, current or potential employers cannot review your credit report without a valid reason or your written consent. Whether or not they can pull your credit file can also depend on what state you live in. How much information the employer can access also varies.
Employers typically receive modified credit reports, which include:
- Personal information and Social Security number to verify your identity
- Loan and credit card accounts
- Payment history
- Collections accounts
These modified reports usually don’t include sensitive information, such as your date of birth and account numbers. The rest of the information in the report indicates to employers how trustworthy you are and how well you manage money and responsibilities so they can decide whether to extend you a job offer.
Similar to employers, landlords want to get a sense of how you manage your finances and make payments before offering you an apartment. Therefore, the most important information in your credit report to potential landlords is your payment history. If you have poor money management skills and often miss payments, they more than likely won’t want to offer you the apartment for fear that you’ll make late payments or default on them entirely.
The water, gas, electricity, internet, cable, and even cell phone bill — your credit report and score impact all of these. Utilities are a form of credit in that your provider allows you to use their product or service and you are responsible for paying off what you’ve used at the end of the month. When you pay bills, those payments are then reported to the major credit bureaus.
Therefore, many utility companies look to your credit score to see how you’ve handled your credit accounts in the past, as well as whether you’ve paid off your debts in a responsible way. While many utility companies will not deny you service due to your financial status, you may have to pay a deposit to offset some of that risk for the service provider.
What Are They Looking For?
In general, creditors and other companies with access to your credit report are interested in seeing how you borrow money. Your credit history is a key indicator for how likely you are to repay debts, utility services, insurance premiums, rent, and more.
Therefore, creditors and other companies use your credit report and score to assess your creditworthiness — whether you should be approved for a loan or line of credit at all, and what your interest rates and terms will be if you do get approved.
Some of the most pertinent information in your credit report that shows lenders and other companies what kind of consumer you are are your payment history and credit utilization.
Lenders want to see that you keep a low credit utilization ratio and use credit responsibly from month to month. If you rely too heavily on credit in your day to day life, lenders may perceive you as a risk and potentially not financially fit to loan to.
They also want to be assured that if you use credit, you will repay it. Whether or not you make payments on time is one of the biggest factors that can cause your credit score to go up or down — it is also one of the biggest factors that determine if you get access to certain loans, credit cards, and other financial products and services.
Do Credit Checks Hurt Your Credit Score?
Credit checks do affect your credit scores, but typically they will not do lasting damage. When a lender or other company performs a credit check, they can do it one of two ways: hard inquiry or soft inquiry.
Hard credit inquiries are most often used when lending is involved. After you apply for a new line of credit — such as a credit card, auto loan, personal loan, mortgage, or other type of loan — the lender will contact the credit bureaus to inquire about a copy of your credit report, which will give them an idea of your credit landscape. Typically you have to give written permission for the lender or company to run a hard inquiry on your credit file.
Soft inquiries, on the other hand, occur when an authorized individual or company runs a credit check for a reason unrelated to lending you money. For instance, it is considered a soft inquiry when you request to check your credit report. A potential landlord or utility company may also make a soft inquiry to see your payment history before approving an application.
Only hard inquiries negatively impact your credit score because they reflect the risk of you opening a new line of credit and potentially not being able to pay for it. Hard inquiries are a part of the new credit slice of your credit score, which only accounts for 10% of the final number. These types of inquiries only cause your score to drop a few points and linger on your report for a short amount of time. If you make on-time payments and use credit responsibly, you should see it go back up in a short amount of time.
Who Can’t Look at Your Credit Report and Score?
The only people who should be able to look at your credit score are you, creditors, and other entities that you have authorized. No one else — not even family members — should be able to get ahold of your credit from any credit reporting agency. Your credit information can also not be accessed online or in any way other than contacting the bureaus directly.
How Can You Look at Your Own Credit Report?
By law, you have access to one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The federal law is enforced most notably by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You can request your free credit report anytime from each credit reporting agency at AnnualCreditReport.com.
What Is in Your Credit Report?
Your credit report is broken down into several categories.
- Personal information: Information about you, including your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, other names you’ve used (e.g. maiden name), and employment information
- Credit account history: Open and closed credit accounts from the past seven years, dates of opening and closing, creditors’ names, current balances and loan amounts, payment history, credit limits, interest rates, and other credit information
- Public records and collections: Public knowledge that reflects your money management skills (e.g. collections accounts, bankruptcy filings, court judgments for missed child support payments)
- Inquiries: Soft and hard inquiries into your credit file
What Makes Up Your Credit Score?
There are many different credit scores, but FICO is the most popular. FICO credit scores range from 300–850 and are used by about 90% of financial institutions and lenders to determine your competence with finances. Your FICO Score is broken into five segments.
- Payment history: How often you pay your bills on time
- Credit utilization: How much of your total credit you are using
- Length of credit history: How long you’ve had credit in your name
- Credit mix: How many different types of credit are in your credit file
- New credit: How many new credit accounts have been opened or attempted to be opened recently
How Can You Improve Your Credit Score?
In understanding what a credit score is and how it’s calculated, you’ll be able to better target certain areas that will boost your credit score fast.
Manage your bill payments
As one of the most influential aspects of your score, it’s crucial that you make on-time payments to your lenders, credit card issuers, and billers if they report them to the credit bureaus. Even if you can’t settle your credit card balances in full and can only make the minimum payment, pay what you can.
Sometimes this is easier said than done, but there are some simple things that you can incorporate into your bill pay routine to ensure that your payment is heading out the door when it needs to be.
- Make a list of your bills
- Set payment reminders
- Organize your bill-paying space
- Reorganize your due dates
- Set a bill-paying date
- Consider automatic payments
- Review your bills thoroughly as soon as they arrive
- Decide how you will pay
- Monitor your bank account to ensure the payment went through
Stick to 30% or less credit utilization
After paying your bills on time, managing how much credit you are using at a given time is the second most important factor of your score. The best way to keep your utilization low is to always pay off as much of your credit card balance as possible — in full is best.
You can also make more than one payment per month. You should avoid using more than 30% of your credit limit at all times. If you use more than 30% throughout the month and make small, more frequent payments, you can keep your utilization at an ideal rate when your credit card company reports the information to the bureaus after your bill due date.
Another way to lower your utilization is to ask for a credit limit increase. In order to get a limit increase, you typically have to have a positive credit history. With a limit increase, your balance should not increase as well. If it does, you won’t be helping your credit utilization.
Keep credit accounts open and in good health
While not the most important component of your credit score, the length of your credit history counts for something. Essentially, if you have an open credit account that you’re considering closing, you should reconsider. If you close one of your oldest accounts, it could bring your score down several points because it will lower your overall credit limit and increase your credit utilization.
If the account is in good standing but one that you don’t really use anymore, keep it open and only use it for sporadic, small purchases to keep it in good standing. Charge gas or groceries to your card every once in a while, but don’t forget to pay off your balance at the end of the month.
Limit hard inquiries
Try not to open too many accounts at once. Credit applications lead to hard inquiries by creditors, which knock your credit score down a few points.
Sometimes hard inquiries are inevitable, like when you’ve decided that it’s time to expand your credit mix or take advantage of a good deal on a credit card. Luckily, an application will only moderately affect your credit score, but it’s best to limit requests when you can.
Make your thin credit file a little thicker
People with thin credit files have few (if any) accounts listed on their credit reports. In many cases, you have to have credit in order to get credit, making it difficult for people with little credit to improve their credit score situation. However, there are things that you can do to kickstart your journey.
- Apply for a secured credit card, make on-time payments, and manage your credit utilization
- Become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card
- Use services, such as utility or cell phone companies, that report your bill payments to the credit bureaus
Consider debt consolidation
Debt consolidation is the process of taking out one loan to pay off several loans. For instance, if you have multiple student loans, you could take out a single loan and consolidate all of the student loans under a single umbrella. If you’re able to get a good interest rate on the consolidated loan, you’ll be able to pay down your debt faster, which will improve your credit utilization ratio and boost your credit score.
In a similar vein, if you have multiple credit card balances, you can do a balance transfer to consolidate all of your credit card debt under one card. Many balance transfer credit cards offer an introductory 0% APR, which allows you to pay down your debt faster. Be careful with balance transfers and debt consolidation, though, as you could end up paying more if you don’t pay off your balance during the introductory period.
Review your credit reports
One of the most important things that you can do while trying to improve your credit score is review your free credit reports. You can get a sense of what you’re doing right when it comes to credit and — just as importantly — what you can be doing better. If you want the highest possible credit score, your credit report should look like: on-time payments, low credit card balances, older credit accounts that are still in use, a diverse array of credit types, and minimal hard inquiries or applications for new credit.
It’s helpful to pull all three credit reports at the same time so you can compare the information in them. You should be on the lookout for inaccurate or outdated information, or identity theft, that could be dragging your score down.
For instance, if a payment that you made to a biller has been marked late but you believe you made the payment on time, you can dispute it with each credit reporting agency. But if you call to dispute a mark with the credit bureaus, make sure that you have grounds for your claims, such as a screenshot of your on-time payment.
If you find any discrepancies or inaccurate information when checking your free credit report, you can dispute them directly with the credit bureau and should see some movement in your credit scores within the next few months.