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If you're a landlord, you may use consumer reports to evaluate rental applications - as long as you follow the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA is designed to protect the privacy of consumer report information and to guarantee that the information supplied by consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) is as accurate as possible. The FCRA requires landlords who deny a lease based on information in the applicant's consumer report to provide the applicant with an "adverse action notice."
What is a Consumer Report?
A consumer report contains information about a person's credit characteristics, character, general reputation, and lifestyle. A report also may include information about someone's rental history, such as information from previous landlords or from public records like housing court or eviction files. To be covered by the FCRA, a report must be prepared by a CRA - a business that assembles such reports for other businesses. The most common type of CRA is the credit bureau.
Landlords often use consumer reports to help them evaluate rental applications. These reports include:
Landlords often ask applicants to give personal, employment and previous landlord references on their rental applications. Whether verifying such references is covered by the FCRA depends on who does the verification. A reference verified by the landlord's employee is not covered by the Act; a reference verified by an agency hired by the landlord to do the verification is covered.
What is an Adverse Action?
An adverse action is any action by a landlord that is unfavorable to the interests of a rental applicant. Common adverse actions by landlords include:
The Adverse Action Notice
When an adverse action is taken that is based solely or partly on information in a consumer report, the FCRA requires you to provide a notice of the adverse action to the consumer. The notice must include:
Disclosure of this information is important because some consumer reports contain errors.
The adverse action notice is required even if information in the consumer report was not the main reason for the denial, the increase in security deposit or rent or other adverse action. In fact, even if the information in the report plays only a small part in the overall decision, the applicant still must be notified.
The adverse action notice must name the CRA that provided the report to the landlord, even if the information came from another CRA. For example, a report from XYZ TenantScreen includes a credit report from ABC Credit Bureau. The credit report includes negative information that prompts the landlord to turn down the rental application. The adverse action notice should name XYZ TenantScreen as the CRA because XYZ TenantScreen actually provided the report to the landlord. The notice also can explain that XYZ TenantScreen got the credit information from ABC Credit Bureau, but that is not required under the FCRA.
While oral adverse action notices are allowed, written notices provide proof of FCRA compliance.
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Non-Compliance with the FCRA
Landlords who fail to provide required disclosure notices face legal consequences. The FCRA allows individuals to sue landlords for damages in federal court. A person who successfully sues is entitled to recover court costs and reasonable legal fees. The law also allows individuals to seek punitive damages for deliberate violations of the FCRA. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), other federal agencies and the states may sue landlords for non-compliance and get civil penalties.
However, a landlord who inadvertently fails to provide a required notice in an isolated case has legal protections, so long as he or she can demonstrate "that at the time of the . . . violation he maintained reasonable procedures to assure compliance" with the FCRA.
For More Information
If you have questions about the FCRA or would like a copy of the Act, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). You also can find the Act online at www.ftc.gov. Click on Business Guidance.
Your Opportunity to Comment
The Small Business and Agriculture Regulatory Enforcement Ombudsman and 10 Regional Fairness Boards collect comments from small business about federal enforcement actions. Each year, the Ombudsman evaluates enforcement activities and rates each agency's responsiveness to small business. To comment on FTC actions, call toll-free 1-888-734-3247.