Credit Reports

What Does a Credit Bureau Do?

There are three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These bureaus gather information about a consumer's credit history from banks, loan companies, and other creditors and compile it into a credit report. The credit report is made available to other potential creditors, such as financial institutions and lenders, as well as insurance companies and landlords. Credit reporting agencies do not decide whether someone is eligible for credit, but credit reports have a huge impact on a consumer's ability to receive credit.

Who Can Obtain My Credit Report?

Credit bureaus do not need your approval before they release your report, and they do not have to notify you after they release it. However, federal law limits the situations in which credit reporting agencies can release your credit report. They may do so only:

  • In response to a court order
  • By your written request
  • In connection with a credit transaction for which you are being considered (with or without your knowledge) or are otherwise involved, such as a loan application
  • For employment or investment purposes
  • For the purposes of underwriting your insurance
  • If you apply for government benefits
  • For any other legitimate business purpose, such as renting.

Can I Also Obtain My Credit Report?

Not only can you obtain your own credit report (the ways to do so discussed below), but there are some good reasons to consider doing so!

Protect Yourself

Sometimes credit reports have mistakes in them that can hurt your ability to get credit. Periodically checking a copy of your report for accuracy provides you with the opportunity to correct errors. Also, in the event that you have your identity stolen, checking your report and knowing how to freeze your credit or issue a fraud alert can reduce some of the long-term financial damage caused by the identity theft.

Save money when you're applying for apartments! Landlords are allowed to charge you up to $25 for the actual cost of a credit check unless you provide a copy of your own that is no older than 30 days. Wis. Stat. 704.085(1)(a) & (b), ATCP 134.05(4) 

NOTE: Wisconsin landlords are also allowed to charge out-of-state applicants up to $25 for the actual cost of a background check. Wis. Stat. 704.085(2)

How Can I Get My Credit Report?

If you have been denied credit, which includes being denied for an apartment, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report. Simply request a copy from the credit-reporting agency that supplied the report to the creditor/landlord.
To get your free credit report, go to this website:  Annual Credit Report Request Service.  Click on ‘Request your free credit reports’ and decide if you want one or all three.  Answer some quick information about your address and past address.  The reports will all be available online nearly immediately, and you can print or save as a pdf after you answer some additional financial information.

Note: The reports will not include your credit score. The reports give you all the relevant information about late payments, who has requested your score, negative findings, etc. To get the score, they will ask for an additional fee.  Remember, if you are denied by a landlord due to your credit score, you are entitled to see a copy of that report.

What Can I Do if I Believe the Information in My Credit Report is Inaccurate?

Write to the credit bureau immediately and describe the error in as much detail as possible. The agency must investigate your request and correct the error if one is found. If a correction is necessary, the agency must inform every business that has recently received your report that a correction has been made.

If the agency does not find an error,  you have the right to file a brief statement describing the nature of your disagreement with their findings. This statement, or an accurate summary thereof, must be included in any future credit report about you. Since the reports from the three major credit bureaus may contain different information, it is a good idea to obtain a report from each of them. 

General Tips to Preserve/Improve Credit Score

It is always important to remember that credit is a financial tool used to make creditors money. The longer it takes you to repay a debt, the more money the creditor makes.  If you’re late on or miss a payment, you get charged a late fee.  Sometimes, the late or missed payment triggers a contractual increase in the interest rate, meaning more money transferred to the creditor.

Most folks do not have access to financial advisors to help manage risk. So, to protect yourself from creditors, do not accept or use credit cards with terms too onerous for you to fulfill. (As always, read any contract before signing it!) Before using credit to service a transaction, run a budget to make sure you will be able to pay off the debt in a timely manner. Lastly, build into the price of any purchase the estimated amount that will go to the creditor.  Is the purchase still attractive? Sometimes it is necessary to use credit to purchase necessities. But, if doing so means assuming larger and larger debts, you can end up trapped in a web of creditors.

Other Resources

The Federal Trade Commission is a government agency that enforces federal fair credit reporting laws. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a U.S. government agency that makes sure banks, lenders, and other financial companies treat consumers fairly.

According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as of September 20, 2010 all Wisconsin residents may request one free credit report per year from each credit bureau. You MUST order your annual report through a central clearinghouse:

Annual Credit Report Request Service - FREE Annual Credit Reports here! 

PO Box 105281

Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Note: You can pay for additional copies of your credit report by contacting any of the three major credit bureaus. By law, they may charge up to $13.50 for each credit report (accurate for 2022, but these rates can change year-to-year about each year). These are the same bureaus that supply the free annual credit reports, but they ONLY offer those through the central clearing house listed above.


PO Box 740241

Atlanta, GA 30374



PO Box 4500

Allen, TX 75013



PO Box 2000

Chester, PA 19016


Used with permission of Consumer Law Clinic

UW-Madison Law School - Intakes: (608) 263-6283