- Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have been able to access free weekly credit reports.
- Consumers were previously entitled to one annual credit report from each of the three major bureaus.
- Advocates argue that such reports should remain free, with consumers able to easily dispute inaccurate data.
During the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — announced that they would offer free weekly credit reports in response to the public health emergency.
Before 2020, consumers were legally entitled to one free yearly credit report from each of the three bureaus at annualcreditreport.com, but the pandemic-related change was extended through 2021 and 2022, and has also been extended through December 2023.
However, with President Joe Biden set to end the COVID-19 national and public health emergencies in May, the future of free weekly reports remains up in the air.
Why is it so important for consumers to continue having such a resource? And what can be done to keep free weekly reports for consumers in a post-pandemic world?
Even with weekly reports, nearly a half million consumer complaints
In the wake of the pandemic, the availability of weekly credit reports has aided Americans in monitoring their credit histories, but the three credit bureaus are still the subject of complaints from many consumers.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the US government agency created in 2010 to protect consumers against financial malfeasance, stated in a January 2023 report that from October 2021 to September 2022, it had sent over 488,000 consumer complaints to the three major credit bureaus.
“Even when consumers are successful in having their complaint addressed, complaints call into question the underlying data contained in consumers’ credit reports,” the report read. “Through the CFPB’s complaint process, the CFPB frequently encounters consumers who attempt to have inaccurate information corrected only to have different outcomes at each of the NCRAs [nationwide consumer reporting agencies] or the wrong information changed.”
The CFPB report did identify improvements that were made by the credit reporting agencies, namely that most consumers have begun to receive substantive responses after addressing complaints, while there has also been a sharp increase in “more tailored complaint responses” and higher rates of relief to individual complaints.
But many consumers have continued to register their grievances with the CFPB.
Ed Mierzwinski, the senior director of the federal consumer program at the US Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, told Insider that the big three credit bureaus are “the No. 1 complaint at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”
“What are the complaints? ‘They made a mistake and they didn’t listen to me when I said to fix it.’ So the credit bureaus are in a big fight with the consumer bureau over this issue,” he said.
Credit reports are a relatively recent phenomenon with an enormous amount of power
In 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was passed, putting into place legislation intended to advance the accuracy and privacy of personal information contained in the files of credit reporting agencies.
Over the next 30 years, advances in technology, notably the exponential growth of the internet in the 1990s, prompted policymakers to consider additional changes to the existing law. Consumer groups and many lawmakers were also alarmed by the difficulties that consumers faced in finding errors in their respective credit reports, along with the growing issue of identity theft, which was becoming increasingly prevalent in the digital age.
In December 2003, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush as an amendment to the FCRA, affording Americans a free yearly credit report from the three major bureaus through the aforementioned Annual Credit Report website. The act also sought to tackle the proliferation of identity theft, which in 2002 had cost US lenders at least $1 billion, according to NBC News.
Navigating the credit reporting system in the United States requires skill and often a good deal of patience.
Applying for a credit card? Your score better be in great shape, or you could get a higher interest rate. If you’re shopping for a mortgage, an excellent score could land you a lower interest rate for a home, while even a good score with one negative mark on your report can lead to rejection.
Many consumers have had inaccurate information posted on their reports, unknowingly dragging down their scores before being forced to file disputes that can take weeks to resolve.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, identity theft had not only become more prevalent, but many consumers still had issues navigating the credit reporting system, a problem made worse by the limitation of getting just one free annual report from each of the three major credit bureaus.
Lots of people want to completely overhaul the flawed and costly system
The Comprehensive Credit Act, sponsored by Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, would have established an appeals process for credit report disputes, offered free credit reports and scores to consumers disputing items on their respective reports, and expedited the process for withdrawing information about debt that was paid off, among other reforms. Meanwhile, the Protecting Your Score Act, introduced by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, would have created a central online portal giving Americans free credit scores and implemented a credit reporting ombudsman at the CFPB, among other measures.
But the bills were never taken up by the Senate, which at the time was run by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
In May 2021, attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center appeared before the House Financial Services Committee, where she floated moving away from the three-credit-bureau system and putting into place a public credit registry.
“While public agencies are far from perfect, at least they would not have profit-making as their top priority,” Wu told the committee. “They would be responsive to public pressure and government oversight.”
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who chaired the panel at the time, said during the hearing that a public credit reporting agency “would be a major upgrade over today’s broken, biased credit reporting system.”
Consumer advocates stress that not only should credit reports be easily accessible but that Americans should be able to scrutinize the information contained in credit reports.
“The marginal costs of them sending you these reports is virtually nothing,” Mierzwinski told Insider.
“You should have the right to audit information that a company is selling without your consent to make sure that it’s true. That’s why credit reports should always be free,” he added.
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