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Consumer's Guide to Credit Reporting in Wisconsin

Credit Reporting Companies

If you have ever applied for a loan, a charge account, or insurance, information about your personal finances has probably been collected by a credit reporting company (also called a consumer reporting agency). Credit reporting companies are businesses that provide information about a consumer's credit history. Credit reports include information on your payment history on past bills, unpaid debts, bankruptcy, lawsuits filed on debts, and arrests. The customers of credit reporting companies include banks, loan companies, and retailers that extend credit. A business or person requesting a credit report from a reporting company must have a legitimate business reason in order to obtain the information that the company has in its file. Consumers also have a right to find out what information is in their file and to make sure that the information is accurate and up to date.

Credit reporting companies may also provide investigative reports on persons applying for a job or insurance to an employer or insurance company. These reports may include not only credit information, but also information about a person's lifestyle, habits, and reputation, and the information may come from interviews with the person's neighbors and acquaintances. A person must be notified when an investigative report has been requested and has a right to find out what information is contained in the report.

Finding Out the Reasons for a Denial of Credit

Whenever a creditor denies an application for credit, the consumer has a right to find out the reason for the denial. The creditor must give specific reasons so that the consumer knows the exact reason for the denial and can determine whether it was based on accurate information. If the denial was based on information from a credit reporting company, the creditor must give the name and address of the company. If the information was not from a credit reporting company, the creditor must explain the nature of the information that led to the denial of credit.

If credit is denied, it is a good idea to obtain information from the creditor before contacting a credit reporting company so that you know exactly why it was denied and also know which credit reporting company provided the information. It may be easier to deal directly with the creditor to correct any errors. However, it is also important to contact the credit reporting company that provided the inaccurate information and correct its records so that the problem does not reoccur in the future.

Locating Credit Reporting Companies

If credit has been denied because of information obtained from a credit reporting company, a creditor must tell the consumer the name and address of the company. If you decide to review your credit report just to make sure that it is accurate, you will need to check with all credit reporting companies. There are three nationwide credit reporting companies: 1) Equifax, which can be reached at (800) 685-1111 or www.equifax.com; 2) Experian, which can be reached at (888) EXPERIAN or www.experian.com; and 3) Trans Union, which can be reached at (800) 916-8800 or www.transunion.com. Other local or regional credit reporting companies are usually listed in the Yellow Pages under "Credit Reporting Companies," "Credit Rating," or "Credit." Even if the first company you contact has a report, you should still check with the others, since several companies may have a file on your credit history.

Reviewing Your Credit Record

You have a right to find out what information is in your credit report and where the information came from (the only exception is for any medical information that may be in your report as a result of an investigative report). The company will require you to provide identification so that the information is not given to persons who have no authority to receive it. You can review the information in person or over the telephone (if you have already provided identification in person or by mail). You also have a right to find out who the report has been sent to in the past year (or two years for reports on job applicants sent to employers).

If a consumer asks for the information in a credit report within 60 days of a denial of credit, the company must provide the information for free. At other times, the consumer still has a right to the information, but the company may charge a reasonable fee (usually $9.50 to $20). The three nationwide credit reporting companies discussed earlier must provide consumers with a free copy of their reports once every twelve (12) months, if a consumer requests them. Call (877) 322-8228 or visit www.annualcreditreport.com to order the free reports.

Correcting Your Credit Report

If you discover that a credit reporting company has incorrect or out of date information in your file, you can ask to have your file corrected. You should provide specific information about the things in the report that you believe are inaccurate. You may have to contact a creditor and ask it to confirm that a debt that is reported as unpaid has since been brought up to date or paid off. Once you provide information showing that the credit report is inaccurate, the credit reporting company must reinvestigate your case to make sure that the information in your file is correct. If your file is corrected, the company must send the updated report to anyone who has received your report in the past six months (or two years for the reports of job applicants that were sent to an employer).

If the credit reporting company does not agree to change your report, you have a right to submit a summary of what you believe is incorrect in the report. The company can require that the summary be no more than 100 words. Because of the limit on length, it is very important to stick to the disputed items and include only the most important information that supports your belief that the report is inaccurate. The summary will be included in your report when it is sent to creditors and will also be sent free of charge to any recent recipient of your report if requested within 60 days of a denial of credit. After 60 days, you can ask that your summary be sent to prior recipients, but the credit reporting company can require you to pay a reasonable fee.

There are limits on the length of time that unfavorable information can be included in your credit report. Information about a bankruptcy can be reported for ten years. Information about a lawsuit or judgment can stay in a report for as long as the statute of limitations on the claim or judgment or for seven years, whichever is longer. Any other unfavorable information can be reported for seven years. However, there is no time limit on reporting unfavorable information if a report is requested in connection to a job application where the salary is $75,000 or more, in connection to an application for $150,000 or more in life insurance, or in connection to an extension of credit of $150,000 or more.

Penalties for Violating Credit Reporting Requirements

If a credit reporting company violates the credit reporting law, a consumer can sue and collect actual damages and attorney's fees. If the violation was willful rather than negligent, a court can also award the consumer punitive damages. If someone uses false pretenses to obtain a report, or if a credit reporting company discloses information from your file to someone who has no authority to obtain it, you may also be entitled to damages.

Contact an attorney or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for more information. The FTC can be reached at (877) FTC-HELP or www.ftc.gov.

Credit Repair Organizations

There are also businesses that offer to help you correct or improve your credit rating. While some of these businesses are honest, others do little or nothing for consumers. You should be able to correct any problems yourself in no more time than it would take a correction service to do it for you. You have the right to get all information in your credit report just by asking, and only you will know which information is correct and which is incorrect.

If you do decide to use a credit repair organization, it must give you a copy of the “Consumer Credit File Rights under State and Federal Law” before you sign a contract. It must also give you a written contract that explains your rights and obligations. No services shall be performed until three days after you sign the contract, and you are free to cancel the contract, without penalty, within those three days.

If there is unfavorable information in your report that is accurate, a credit reporting company may keep the information in your report for the allowed time period, and there is nothing that you or a correction service can do to require a company to remove it.

The above is intended to provide general information only and is not a substitute for thorough and specific advice on an individual case. Depending on the complexity of your legal problem, you may need to consult an attorney for advice or representation.


This was prepared by the staff of Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc. on behalf of low-income clients and was funded by the Legal Services Corporation, Washington, D.C., 20005. Any opinions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as those of the Legal Services Corporation.

Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc. does not discriminate on the basis of disability in the provision of services or in employment. If you need printed material interpreted or in a different form, or if you need assistance in using our services, please inform us. Deaf, hearing-impaired, or speech-impaired callers may reach us through the Wisconsin Telecommunication Relay System (711 or 1-800-947-3529).

©August 2006 Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc.


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