A pivotal financial moment, like finding a new job, buying a home, or taking out a student loan, a person’s credit history can become an obstacle to achieving what they want to do. Though credit reports and scores can be effective in determining whether to lend money to a borrower, they also tend to dictate where people can work or live. The Comprehensive Credit Reporting, Enhancement, Disclosure, Innovation, and Transparency Act (“Comprehensive CREDIT Act”) would change who could use a consumer’s credit information to make determinations and what impact, and for how long, other factors could have on one’s score. Congress should enact this bill. Not only is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) outdated, but credit scores also tend to perpetuate discriminatory behaviors.
Credit Reports and Scores
A credit report provides a history of a consumer’s credit activity, including bill payments, current statuses of credit accounts, and adverse records like foreclosures, bankruptcies, and civil judgments. Credit reports also provide personal information like addresses, points of contact, and the consumer’s social security number. Three companies dominate the credit reporting industry: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Though they never receive a consumer’s outright consent to compile personal data, these three private companies are the main credit report providers. If there are errors on the credit report, the consumer (1) must have access to a credit report or find out about the error another way; and (2) notify the credit reporting agency rather than the creditor that reported the error. Once the consumer has done this, the credit reporting agency’s duties are triggered.
A credit score is an assessment of how likely it is a consumer will fulfill a debt obligation on time. Several factors go into determining a credit score: payment history, current debts, the types and number of accounts one currently has, how long those accounts have been open, and issues like debt collection or bankruptcy. Each of these factors, which are of varying weights, are used in a private company’s “scoring model” (i.e., a formula) to concoct a three digit number. Scores generally range from 300-850; the closer to 850, the more “creditworthy” a consumer is. Though credit reporting companies have disclosed generally which factors compose a credit score, they refuse to disclose the entire scoring model. Indeed, most use trade secret laws as a shield. Without disclosing the scoring model, credit reporting companies can engage in retaliatory and discriminatory behaviors. For example, predatory lending leads to Black and Hispanic homeowners to have higher mortgage payments. Because of historical racist policies leading to lower credit scores and less wealth among these populations, they are also more at risk of not being able to keep up with payments. The discrimination therefore feeds itself: borrowers with lower credit scores end up with even lower scores because of missed payments and foreclosures.
Who Uses Credit Scores?
Financial institutions are the biggest credit score users. Credit scores help them determine whether they should allow a consumer to obtain a line of credit or home mortgage, for example. The other major context where credit scores are important is employment. Employers conduct credit checks as part of a background check process. They usually look at the consumer’s entire credit report, not just her score. One argument is that if an individual is not “trustworthy” enough to make payments on time, they may not be trustworthy on the job, either. In certain positions, such as those involving accounting, this information would matter. But for most positions, the association between trustworthiness and creditworthiness can have prejudicial effects. (One study found that those with lower credit scores tend to have more “agreeable personalit[ies],” if anything.)
Comprehensive CREDIT Act
In January 2020, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Comprehensive CREDIT Act. The Comprehensive CREDIT Act, which amends the FCRA, proposes several reforms: (1) allowing for easier processes to fix credit report errors; (2) restricting use of credit scores for hiring and employment purposes; (3) providing relief for student loan borrowers with poor credit; (4) medical debt reporting wait times and bans for medically necessary procedures; and (5) reducing the amount of time adverse credit information remains on one’s credit report. Predictably, the House voted along party lines and passed the bill. However, it is now awaiting action in the Senate.
The chief reform involves what factors impact a consumer’s credit score. The Act proposes removing certain types of late payments, like student loan and medical bill payments. For the remaining delinquent or negative information, the reporting periods are shortened. For example, if an individual files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy can appear on a person’s credit report for seven to ten years. Under the Act, the period would be shortened to four to seven years. The Comprehensive CREDIT Act also requires that when there are discrepancies in reports provided to the consumer and the requestor, those discrepancies must be explained to the consumer.
The bill also addresses credit score use for employment screening. The bill prohibits employers from denying an applicant solely because of her credit score. The bill may not go far enough, though: the employer can still request the information, and the job applicant can approve its use. While the employer’s decision cannot be made based on that information, they will nevertheless still have access to it.
The bill’s opponents say that the proposed reforms will undermine confidence in credit scores, which are integral to our financial system. By softening the impacts some credit events have, a creditor may not have the full picture of an individual’s ability to pay. The effects could harm more consumers than protect them, as riskier activity may go unreported or not have as much as a determinative effect. To be sure, credit scores are a pillar of our financial system. Any change to them will have a significant impact on how the financial impact operates. Even so, credit scores continue to have a discriminatory effect on certain communities of borrowers and only perpetuate disparate impacts. Rep. Pressley’s bill focuses largely on that impact. The purpose of the bill is to minimize the impact of credit-related issues. A credit report currently only provides a black and white picture a person’s debts and credit history; a credit score is a numeric representative of that history. It does not show that a medical debt incurred was for a life-saving procedure or that a foreclosure stems from a predatory lending process. The impacts of those events stay with the creditor for some time, further impacting their lives even though they have overcome the event. For example, a poor credit report tip the scales in favor of other candidates, especially for competitive positions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is already creating significant financial implications. Inabilities to pay credit card bills because of unexpected income losses will affect consumers for years to come, even when the financial system recovers. Because so many Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, and because COVID-19 was largely unplanned for, consumers should not have to face the consequences. Provisions in Rep. Pressley’s bill would remedy some of those concerns. Now is clearly the time to enact the Comprehensive CREDIT Act.