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With lots of personal data available online, you might suspect that your credit history is accessible to anyone with a slight aptitude for Google search. Although you aren’t the only person who can see your credit scores and reports, you can feel secure in knowing that this financial information is given only to those who legitimately need it.
That said, your credit can be checked in many situations — when you apply for a loan or credit card, a job, utilities, student loans and more. Monitoring your own credit helps you watch out for trouble and build your profile.
Who can access your credit report or score
Your credit scores and credit reports can be obtained by several kinds of organizations. As a general rule, assume that if an entity has a legitimate business need, it can access your credit. Here are some of the companies and individuals that may be able to pull your reports or a score:
If you’re opening an account, the bank may pull your credit to check your creditworthiness, even if you don’t have a credit card attached to the account. This is because the less creditworthy you are, the more likely you are to overdraw and abandon accounts. Your credit may also be pulled if you opt for overdraft protection because it’s considered a line of credit.
Current or potential creditors — like credit card issuers, auto lenders and mortgage lenders — can pull your credit score and report to determine creditworthiness as well. Credit history is a major factor in determining (a) whether to give you a loan or credit card, and (b) the terms of that loan or credit card. The better your credit, the more likely you are to get approved for a loan with a favorable interest rate.
Student loan providers
In some cases, your credit history may be considered for student loans:
When parents apply for PLUS loans, their creditworthiness will be determined.
If you have a federal loan in default, you won’t be able to obtain another federal loan unless a payment plan for the original loan has been arranged.
When you apply for private loans — those not issued by the federal government — your credit may be pulled.
When you set up utilities or cellphone service, the utility company may pull your credit reports. And although many states have laws that keep utility companies from denying you service due to bad credit, you could be required to pay a deposit.
Your credit may be pulled to determine your insurance rates because, statistically, those with poor credit are more likely to file claims. The insurance company will obtain your credit-based insurance scores, unless the use of such scores is prohibited in your state.
Potential landlords might pull your credit to see whether you have a history of making your payments on time. Landlords often assume that the better your credit, the more likely you are to pay your monthly rent in a timely manner. If your credit is less than desirable, you may still be able to rent an apartment with one of our tips for renters without credit.
It’s a myth that your current or potential employer can access your credit score. However, depending on the state you live in, it may be able to pull a credit report, or at least a modified version. The report pulled by your employer likely won’t include your account numbers or date of birth, but most other credit-related information is fair game, provided it doesn’t pose a security risk for you.
Your credit reports can’t be pulled by an employer without your written consent. And if you’re denied a job based on the report’s contents, by law you have to be provided with that report and an "adverse action notice" letting you know what triggered the denial.
Collectors may peruse your credit reports for contact information or data about your account activity. This assists the agency in contacting you and assessing whether you’ll be able to pay the balance you owe.
A government agency with a legitimate reason to pull your credit may do so. It may be looking for contact information; determining if you potentially have unclaimed income or assets when you apply for public assistance; or determining how much you can afford in child support and more.
Any entity with a court order
There is an exception to the "needing a legitimate business reason to pull your credit" rule. If an entity gets a court order to access your credit, it may do so. However, court orders aren’t easy to obtain, so it’s unlikely that your report will be given to someone who doesn’t have a good reason to see it.
Who can't access your credit
Unless you’re posting pictures of your credit reports on social media, your credit information shouldn’t be available to the public. It won’t show up as a search engine result, and your loved ones can’t request it, regardless of your relationship.
If an individual does use your personal information to obtain your credit history, you can sue for actual damages or $1,000 — whichever is greater — according to legal website Nolo.
How you can get your credit reports and scores
If you want to know your credit scores, you have a couple of options. First, a number of personal finance websites offer a free credit score; look for one that also offers free credit report information, such as NerdWallet. That gives you a way to monitor information being added to your report monthly. In addition, some credit card companies offer credit scores to anyone, even noncustomers.
You should review your credit reports regularly to make sure there are no errors. Material errors can hurt your credit score, lowering the chances that you’ll get approved for a loan and potentially costing you extra money due to higher interest rates.
You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report weekly from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.