There are companies, called "consumer reporting agencies" that supply landlords with information about tenants. These companies collect and sell information about tenants including court cases, credit checks, employment verification, former rental addresses, and criminal record checks. Sometimes the information in these reports is very misleading. It may also be flat out wrong.
“Consumer reports” are provided by “consumer reporting agencies” to third parties, such as landlords and property managers. They then use the information to make decisions including whether to grant credit or residential rental housing. “Consumer reports” is a broad category that includes what are popularly referred to as “credit reports.” The term also includes tenant screening and background reports.
There are two major types of consumer reporting agencies:
- Credit Reporting Agency
Credit reporting agencies provide “credit reports,” which consist of information on your credit and bill paying history. These include Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
- Specialty Consumer Reporting or Tenant Screening Agency
Specialty consumer reporting agencies collect information for a specific purpose like screening tenants. These will be referred to as “tenant screening agencies.”
Landlords do not need your permission to obtain a tenant screening or other consumer report 1 . However, if a landlord denies you housing based on the report, she must give you a written notice telling you the name of the tenant screening agency that provided the report and how to contact that agency to obtain a copy of the report. 2
If your application for an apartment is denied, ask the landlord why. You may be able to convince the landlord that you should not be rejected for that reason.
Also, ask the landlord whether she used a tenant screening agency and, if so, what the name of the company is. There are many tenant screening agencies and this may be your only real way of finding out what company is distributing information about you so that you can either get wrong information corrected or try to change information that is misleading. See the section in this chapter: Your Right to Challenge the Accuracy of a Consumer Report.3
1. What Is a Tenant Screening Report
Tenant screening reports can include information about eviction histories, court cases prior addresses, social security number verification, bankruptcy cases, and criminal record searches. Sometimes there may be comments from former property managers.
If you have ever had an eviction case brought against you, you might discover that one of these agencies has a file about you in its computer. A landlord may not want to rent to you because she thinks you will not pay your rent or are a troublemaker (even though your previous landlord violated the law or your case was dismissed).
How to Get a Copy of a Tenant Screening Report
There are many tenant screening agencies. Consumers have the right to a free report from a tenant screening agency once every 12 months. There is no centralized source for obtaining free tenant screening reports. Requests must be made directly to each tenant screening agency.
Each company must establish a toll-free telephone number for requesting consumer reports. Some, but not all, companies allow online, faxed, or mail-in requests. The only requirement is that they establish a toll-free number, published anywhere the company does business.
To obtain a free copy of your report, you must fill out a Consumer Disclosure Request Form. Your report should include a list of any person who has requested a report on you.
When making a request, you may be asked to provide your name, social security number, current and previous address, driver’s license, and current employer. For a list of some specialty consumer reporting companies and their contact information see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's List of consumer reporting companies
2. What Is a Credit Report
Credit histories are one of the main items that landlords may look at when screening tenants. There are three national credit reporting companies:
Credit reports show how you have borrowed money and repaid it and what money you currently owe. The vast majority of adults have a credit file.
Your credit file has basic information about you, such as your Social Security Number, birth date, current and former addresses, and employers. It also lists any amounts that you owe and any accounts that have been turned over to a collection company. It could also contain public information about court judgments, tax liens, and bankruptcies. 4
Your credit report should not include information about your race, religious preference, medical history, personal lifestyle, or political preference. Income and driving records are rarely included. 5
How to Get a Copy of a Credit Report
Before you start looking for housing, it is a good idea to get a copy of your credit report to make sure there are no mistakes or old information that will hurt you as your search for housing. Your report should also include a list of any person who has requested a report on you.
Under federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the national credit reporting agencies. They have set up one central website, toll free telephone number, and mailing address through which you can order your free annual report. To order:
- Online Annual Credit Report
- Call 877-322-8228; or
- Complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
You can find the form online annual-report-request-form.pdf.
Do not contact the national credit reporting agencies individually for your free annual report. They only provide free annual credit reports through the centralized request service listed above. If you contact them directly, you may end up with a “free” report that converts to an expensive paid subscription service.
Massachusetts residents are entitled to an additional free credit report a year from each of these credit reporting companies6 . You are also entitled to a free report if:
- You are receiving public welfare assistance;
- You have been denied credit or housing within the last 60 days;
- You are unemployed and will be applying for a job in the next 60 days; or
- You have reason to believe that your credit report contains inaccurate information due to fraud.7
If you are not entitled to a free copy, the reporting companies cannot charge you more than $12 for a copy of your credit report.8
3. How to Correct Errors or Old Information on a Credit or Tenant Screening Report
Once you get a copy of your credit or tenant screening report, take a careful look at it. Check to see if there are any mistakes. For example, there might be information from another person’s account on your report. Or it may show that you still owe a debt that has been paid. Also check for outdated information. Negative information can only be reported for 7 years, except for information about bankruptcies, which can remain on your report for 10 years9 . Criminal convictions can stay on forever.
If you believe that your consumer report contains incorrect or old information, you have a right to challenge the accuracy of the report10 . If your challenge is unsuccessful, you also have the right to add to the file your own statement about what happened, so that whenever a new landlord checks your file, she will see your explanation. For example, if an eviction case was brought against you but was later dismissed, you should challenge it by asking that the dismissal be included. If the tenant screening agency does not correct the information, you can add an explanation that the action was dismissed because your landlord made an accounting error and claimed that you owed rent when you did not.
If you have been denied housing, you have a right to see and obtain a free copy of your report. To obtain a free copy, you must ask for the information within 60 days of receiving notice that you were denied housing.11
You have the right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the information in your report. After you have reviewed your file, contact the reporting agency to dispute information you feel it is inaccurate or incomplete.
To challenge the accuracy or completeness of a report, write a letter to each reporting agency that has reported incorrect information. Tell the reporting agency what you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, why, and request that they correct the item. Include with the letter copies of any documents that show that the information is wrong or misleading.12 Keep a copy of your letter and the originals of any supporting documents.
For example, if the tenant screening report claims you did not pay rent and you did and you still have receipts for rent, send the agency copies of these receipts. Do not send the original receipts. If you don't have receipts, get canceled checks from your bank or a bank statement showing you paid the rent.
By law, the reporting agency must reinvestigate and correct erroneous information.13 In most circumstances, the company is required to get back to you with the results of the investigation within 30 days.14
If the company determines that information in the report is inaccurate or that it can no longer be verified, the company must delete this information within 3 business days.15 The creditor or other information provider that supplied the information has a duty to correct and update the information.16 If the reporting agency does not resolve the dispute to your satisfaction, you have a right to include a statement (in 100 words or less) explaining your side of the story.17 This statement must be attached to your report and provided to anyone who accesses your report in the future.18
If the reporting agency modifies or removes bad information from your file, you have a right to request that they send the new report to any person who has received your report within the past 6 months.19 The agency must send a corrected report to you, the consumer within 10 business days of your request and must send it to anyone who has requested it within 15 days of your request. The company cannot charge a fee for this service.20
While all of this is a lot of work, it may be necessary as you search for housing.
b. Are You Victim of Identity Fraud
If you have negative information on your credit report because someone has stolen your personal or financial information, you may be the victim of identity fraud. For more information see Attorney General Maura Healey’s Guide on Identity Theft for Victims and Consumers and Identity Theft on The Federal Trade Commission website.
4. How to Repair Bad Credit
Credit counseling services, which are often nonprofit organizations, can help you get your debt under control. These services have trained counselors who arrange repayment plans that are acceptable to you and your creditors, and they may be able to persuade creditors to lower or eliminate interest and late payments. The counselors can also help you set up a realistic budget. These counseling services are offered at little or no cost. You may want to look for a credit counselor certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling: www.nfcc.org.
Beware of scams. Credit repair companies are not the same as credit counseling services. Many companies charge you money and say they will “fix” your credit report. If you have bad credit, a credit repair company cannot legally remove accurate and timely information from a credit report. If there is inaccurate information on your report, you can challenge the inaccurate information yourself. It is not worth paying someone to do it for you. For more information about the dangers of credit repair companies, see Credit Repair Scams
5. Improve Your Chances of Getting Housing
To improve your chances of getting housing, there are a number of steps you can take if you have bad credit:
- Supply positive unreported payment history to the landlord so that they can see you pay your bills
Gather documentation of accounts which are in good standing, like medical copays or premiums, car insurance bills, child support payments, phone bills, cell phone bills, rent, utilities, program fees at shelters, storage facilities, or furniture rentals. Credit reporting agencies do not usually include this information in their reports, although they are beginning to include some types of rental payments.
- Explain damaging information
When you are applying for housing and you know the landlord will do a credit check, include a letter and documentation to the landlord explaining your negative credit history. For example, you can show that a period in which you fell behind on bills was due to illness, unemployment, interruption of public benefits, or divorce.
- Demonstrate positive income changes
Point out any increases in income, stabilized income (for example, getting approved for SSI), or increased earning power due to education or job training. Point out why paying rent will not be a problem if the rent is subsidized. Or, if you had a disabling illness that resulted in falling behind on your bills, but you are no longer ill, this would be important to explain.
- Seek a reasonable accommodation
If your poor credit is due to a disability, you should request that a housing authority or landlord make a reasonable accommodation of your disability. Accommodations can include requests to ignore credit history from a time when you were untreated, if you are currently receiving treatment, or to approve your application on the condition that you get a representative payee who will pay your rent.
- Offer to have someone else pay the rent
Consider offering to arrange for a representative payee (if you are on SSI) or protective payments (if you receive welfare benefits) or a co-signer on a lease. Be aware that, once you get a representative payee, the payee will have control over how all your money is spent.
- Apply to different types of landlords
Landlords who have larger multifamily developments are most likely to check your credit records. If you apply to many different types of landlords and housing programs, you may find some landlords who will not look into your credit report. For example, multifamily owners often use credit reports to screen out applications because they cannot afford to hire sufficient staff to screen applicants, while larger housing authorities rely more on CORI reports and extensive review of prior housing history.
1 . G.L. c. 93, §51(a)(3)(v) gives a consumer reporting agency the authority to give a "consumer report" to a person using the information in connection with the rental of residential property. While landlords can obtain what is defined as a "consumer report" without the consumer's permission, landlords cannot obtain what is defined as an "investigate consumer report" without the consumer's permission. See G.L. c. 93, §53. An "investigative consumer report" is a report that includes information about a "person's character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living" obtained through personal interviews. See G.L. c. 93, §50. A "consumer report" is limited to credit information and cannot include specific information listed in the law. See G.L. c. 93, §52. Note: There is also a federal law that regulates consumer reports and provides protections for consumers called the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. §1681 et seq. For more information about this law, see Fair Credit Reporting, published by the National Consumer Law Center and available for sale online under "Publications for Lawyers."
3 . Laws that regulate credit reporting agencies do not apply to a prospective landlord obtaining a reference from your prior landlords or from another source, such as the Massachusetts Trial Court’s online database.
4 . A landlord may also see a credit score in addition to the credit report. A credit score estimates your creditworthiness based specific factors that each are weighted differently when viewing your credit report. A credit report shows how you have paid each of your debts. While consumers have a right to receive a free copy of their credits reports once every 12 months, you may have to pay for a credit score. In some mortgage transactions, you will receive credit score for free from the mortgage lender.
14 . 15 U.S.C. §1681i(a)(1); G.L. c. 93, §58. Within ten days of completing the investigation, the company must notify you that the investigation is complete and send you a copy of your credit report if it has been revised. G.L. c. 93, §58(e).
15 . G.L.c. 93, 58(c). The 3 business day requirement was added in in 1995 and would not be pre-empted by federal law under the preemption provision in 15 USC 1681t(b)(1)(B) which preempts state laws "relating to the time by which a consumer reporting agency must take any action, including the provision of notification to a consumer or other person, in any procedure related to the disputed accuracy of information in a consumer’s file, except that this subparagraph shall not apply to any State law in effect on September 30, 1996." See Acts and Resolves of 1995, Chapter 125, Section 8.
18 . 15 U.S.C. §1681i(c); G.L. c. 93, §58(f) (providing that whenever a statement of dispute is filed, the consumer reporting company shall, in any subsequent consumer report containing the information in question, clearly note that it is disputed by the consumer and provide the consumer’s statement as part of its report).
20 . G.L. c. 93, §58(e)requires a corrected report be provided to the consumer in 10 business days. G. L. c. 93, §58(g) requires a company to send the corrected report to previous users in 15 business days. The 10 and 15 business day requirements were added in in 1995 and would not be pre-empted by federal law under preemption provision in 15 USC 1681t(b)(1)(B) which preempts state laws "relating to the time by which a consumer reporting agency must take any action, including the provision of notification to a consumer or other person, in any procedure related to the disputed accuracy of information in a consumer’s file, except that this subparagraph shall not apply to any State law in effect on September 30, 1996. See Acts and Resolves of 1995, Chapter 125, Section 8.