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Your credit report plays an important role in determining whether you can get a loan, a credit card, insurance, an apartment, and even a job in some cases. It can also help determine how much interest you pay on a credit card or loan, and your insurance rate.

So, if your credit report contains errors — say, your report lists a loan you didn’t initiate, an incorrect balance, or a closed account still being reported as open — that can result in a higher interest rate, or an outright rejection. Fortunately, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives consumers protections, including the ability to access their credit reports and dispute errors on them.

Enacted in October 1970, just as small, local credit reporting agencies were consolidating and becoming a national presence, the FCRA imposes strict guidelines on consumer reporting agencies and the companies that feed them data. Understanding your rights under this law helps you stay on top of your credit and finances. Here’s an overview of your rights under the FCRA and how to exercise them.

You have a right to see your credit reports

The act says that you’re entitled to view your credit file from each of the three main credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) for free once every 12 months. You easily can do so at Just be sure you look at the web address closely if you type in the URL. Some copycat websites exist that may charge you for this service or may not be legitimate services.

If you’re requesting your credit file online, you’ll need to answer some ID verification questions to prevent scammers from posing as you. The online verification process can be frustrating to some consumers. “If they have thin credit files, a lot of those questions won’t be pertinent,” explains Linda Sherry, a spokesperson for Consumer Action, a national nonprofit that educates underrepresented consumers about their rights. If the website won’t verify your identity and share your credit file, the alternative is to request information via the automated phone system or through the mail.

In addition to your three annual credit reports, you’re entitled to a free annual copy of any reports from other types of consumer reporting agencies. These include agencies such as LexisNexis, CoreLogic, and Certegy Check Services, which may collect noncredit information about you such as your rent payments, insurance claims, or check-writing history. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a list of more consumer reporting companies. Each one has its own procedures for requesting your free report. (See also: How Alternative Credit Data Can Help Those With Little or No Credit)

You have a right to ask for a credit score

The FCRA also gives you the right to request a credit score. Don’t confuse that with a credit report. Credit scores and credit reports are not the same thing. The contents of your credit report determine your credit score, which can vary depending on which credit bureau supplies the information and which scoring model is used. In other words, you don’t have just one score; you could have many different scores based on which factors are weighted more heavily.

Most credit agencies and other businesses charge you for your credit score and it’s legal for them to do so. Fortunately, an increasing number of credit cards provide free credit scores so you may not need to pay for a credit score. (See also: FICO vs. Fakes: Are You Getting the Wrong Credit Score?)

Access to your credit report is limited

Credit reporting agencies may only share your credit record with people or institutions who have a legitimate reason to see it. Typically, that means someone who is considering your application for credit, insurance, housing, or a job, or who is a current creditor.

Potential employers and landlords generally need your written consent to check your credit. If a reporting agency shares your credit file with someone who doesn’t have a valid need, it could be in violation of your rights under the FCRA.

You have the right to…