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Credit and Your Consumer Rights

A good credit rating is very important. Businesses inspect your credit history when they evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, and even leases. They can use it when they choose to give or deny you credit or insurance, provided you receive fair and equal treatment. Sometimes, things happen that can cause credit problems: a temporary loss of income, an illness, even a computer error. Solving credit problems may take time and patience, but it doesn’t have to be an ordeal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces the credit laws that protect your right to get, use and maintain credit. These laws do not guarantee that everyone will receive credit. Instead, the credit laws protect your rights by requiring businesses to give all consumers a fair and equal opportunity to get credit and to resolve disputes over credit errors. This article explains your rights under these laws and offers practical tips to help you solve credit problems.

Your Credit Report

Your credit report contains information about where you live, how you pay your bills, and whether you’ve been sued, arrested, or filed for bankruptcy. Consumer reporting companies sell the information in your report to businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or renting a home.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) promotes the accuracy and privacy of information in the files of the nation’s consumer reporting companies. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act:

  • You have the right to receive a copy of your credit report. The copy of your report must contain all the information in your file at the time of your request.

    • Each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – is required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.

    • Under federal law, you’re also entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, like denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, and you ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company. You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft.

    • Otherwise, a consumer reporting company may charge you up to $9.50 for another copy of your report within a 12-month period.

  • You have the right to know who asked for your report within the past year – two years for employment related requests.

  • If a company denies your application, you have the right to the name and address of the consumer reporting company they contacted, provided the denial was based on information given by the consumer reporting company.

  • If you question the accuracy or completeness of information in your report, you have the right to file a dispute with the consumer reporting company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provided information about you to the consumer reporting company). Both the consumer reporting company and the information provider are obligated to investigate your claim, and responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. .

  • You have a right to add a summary explanation to your credit report if your dispute is not resolved to your satisfaction. You also can ask the consumer reporting company to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. You can expect to pay a fee for this service.

Your Credit Application

When creditors evaluate a credit application, they cannot engage in discriminatory practices.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits credit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance. Creditors may ask for this information (except religion) in certain situations, but they may not use it to discriminate against you when deciding whether to grant you credit.

The ECOA protects consumers who deal with companies that regularly extend credit, including banks, small loan and finance companies, retail and department stores, credit card companies, and credit unions. Everyone who participates in the decision to grant credit, including real estate brokers who arrange financing, must follow this law. Businesses applying for credit also are protected by this law. Under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act:

  • You cannot be denied credit based on your race, sex, marital status, religion, age, national origin, or receipt of public assistance.

  • You have the right to have reliable public assistance considered in the same manner as other income.

  • If you are denied credit, you have a legal right to know why.

Your Credit Billing and Electronic Fund Transfer Statements

It is important to check credit billing and electronic fund transfer account statements regularly because these documents may contain mistakes that could damage your credit status or reflect improper charges or transfers. If you find an error or discrepancy, notify the company and dispute the error immediately. The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) and Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) establish procedures for resolving mistakes on credit billing and electronic fund transfer account statements, including:

  • charges or electronic fund transfers that you – or anyone you have authorized to use your account – have not made;

  • charges or electronic fund transfers that are incorrectly identified or show the wrong date or amount;

  • math errors;

  • failure to post payments, credits, or electronic fund transfers properly;

  • failure to send bills to your current address – provided the creditor receives your change of address, in writing, at least 20 days before the billing period ends;

  • charges or electronic fund transfers for which you ask for an explanation or written proof of purchase along with a claimed error or request for clarification.

The FCBA generally applies only to “open end” credit accounts – credit cards and revolving charge accounts, like department store accounts. It does not apply to loans or credit sales that are paid according to a fixed schedule until the entire amount is paid back, like an automobile loan. The EFTA applies to electronic fund transfers, like those involving automatic teller machines (ATMs), point-of-sale debit transactions, and other electronic banking transactions.

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