Is My Credit Report Public Information or Confidential? Can Anyone See it?

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This article addresses one of the most frequently asked questions in the credit-reporting world: Is my credit report a matter of public record, or is it confidential? Who can see it?

Quick read: In a hurry? Here's the gist of this article in 100 words or less. The only people who can access consumer credit reports are those who have a legitimate business or legal need. This includes (but is not limited to) lenders, creditors, employers, landlords, debt collection agencies, and law enforcement personnel. Aside from these and other legitimate uses, the information must be kept confidential. Your credit report is not public information.

Your credit report says a lot about you, for better or worse. It shows how you have borrowed and repaid money in the past. It shows missed payments and debt collections. It shows your current credit card balances. In short, it contains a lot of information you would rather be kept private and not public.

Which begs the question: Is your credit report a matter of public record? Is it publicly viewable information that anyone can see?

The answer is no, credit reports are not public information. I cannot see yours, and you cannot see mine. Consumers cannot view other consumers credit reports. You must have a legitimate business need in order to access this information. There are federal laws that regulate the collection and dissemination of consumer data. These laws are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Lingo: Three Important Terms You Need to Know

Below, you will find a list of people and organization that can retrieve your credit report. But before we get to that, we should cover some basic terminology:

Credit report: This is basically a record of your current and past borrowing activity, dating back 7 - 10 years in most cases. These data files contain a variety of financial information, including loans and credit accounts, balances, payment history, and public records such as tax liens and bankruptcies. But the reports themselves are not public information and are therefore not viewable by the general public. They are generally kept confidential, aside from the legitimate business and legal uses described below.

Credit reporting agencies: These are the companies that collect financial information about consumers and provide reports based on that information. They are also referred to as credit reporting bureaus. But don't let the official-sounding terminology fool you -- they are not government agencies. These are private-sector companies that make money by selling consumer credit information. The three biggest CRAs in the United States are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These are the companies that maintain and sell your reports to creditors.

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): This federal law dates back to 1970 and regulates the collection and dissemination of consumer data, including credit reports. It also establishes specific rules and guidelines for the companies that sell this information, namely Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

Is My Credit Report Public Information?

Getting back to the question at hand: Is my credit report public information? Can anyone view it? The answer, again, is no. Only certain types of organizations can request your file from the credit-reporting companies. This includes:

  • Employers and potential employers
  • Mortgage lenders considering you for a loan
  • Credit card companies and other creditors you do business with
  • Landlords
  • Insurance companies
  • Collection agencies
  • Any other company that has a "legitimate business need" for the information

This is a partial list that includes the most common end users. For a complete list of organizations that can request your credit data, refer to section 604 of the aforementioned FCRA law. Section 604 is entitled "Permissible purposes of consumer reports" and can be found online in PDF format.

In most cases, the organization requesting the information must provide a "clear and conspicuous disclosure ... to the consumer at any time before the report is procured." But your permission is not required in every instance (think of those pre-approved credit card offers).

Your File Can Contain Public Records

The term "public records" can also be confusing. Your credit report file does include certain types of public records (see below). But that doesn't mean it is viewable to the general public. In this context, we are talking about financial and legal judgments that are not considered confidential.

Here is a list of public records that can show up in a consumer credit report:

  • Bankruptcy filings (personal bankruptcies, such as Chapter 7 and 13)
  • Civil judgments of a financial nature
  • Tax liens

Conclusion: The information contained within your CRA files can only be used for legitimate business purposes, or to satisfy a legal / law-enforcement request. Credit reports are not public information and must be kept confidential, aside from the legitimate business uses mentioned above.