public recordsRecord systems for tracking people have been around since the invention of writing and civilization itself, though if you ask any genealogy enthusiast, past records aren’t always easy to track down. These days, though, the information that ends up in public records is far more extensive and much easier to find thanks to the Digital Age. Because of this ease of access, public record information can have an effect on everything in your life – from your employment opportunities to your ability to find a place to live to your credit and anything impacted by it. This makes it very important for individuals to know what information their public records contain and what effects these records may have on their credit. Below, we explain everything you need to know about the public records system and how it may impact you.

What information is considered a public record?

In the United States, generally there are a handful of things which are considered a matter of public record and thus available to anyone and everyone who wants access. National public records are accessible thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, and individual states also have their own legislation regarding freedom of information. In general, criminal databases and registries, records for major life events (marriage, birth, divorce and death), voter registration information, property information (titles/deeds, property tax records, addresses), legal judgements and financial status changes (civil settlements, bankruptcies and other court rulings involving damages or money) and your name and address are all considered public records. This list isn’t all-encompassing, and some states have more restrictive laws regarding what is considered public record and what is confidential. However, not all information in the public records directly impacts your credit score or shows up on your credit reports. That doesn’t make it any less important though — as stated above, there are a lot of other areas where these records apply. For example, insurance policies rely on a broader range of public record information than credit reports do. It’s important to know what information is out there about you for anyone to find.

What particular information affects my credit?

Typically the type of information creditors are concerned with includes documentation from civil courts, usually that which notes a person’s inability to pay back money or compensate someone damages. These include things like bankruptcy declarations, lawsuits, tax liens or civil judgments in which the court rules against you. Like most derogatory marks, these will stay on your credit reports for at least seven years, even if you’ve dealt with them. You should also be aware that individuals running more extensive credit checks might be able to see additional information from public records. For example landlords or lenders for loans with a more rigorous vetting process (like mortgages) might pull up things like an individual’s criminal record. While people evaluating you can choose not to use this additional information, it may influence their judgement.

Can public records have inaccuracies?

The short answer, frighteningly, is yes. In one known instance of mistaken identity, a veteran came home from several Iraq tours only to be labeled a felon after a potential landlord conducted a credit check and it came up erroneously on his credit report. Additionally, information that is legally expunged, such as arrest records, could permanently find its way into a digital archive. Many times these inaccuracies are not the result of errors on the original documentation, but errors in reporting done by the various third-parties that offer background and credit checking services — ones that a potential landlord or lender may use.

How do I check my public records?

When it comes to the public records items potentially affecting your credit report, your best option is to check your credit reports on a regular basis. You can access them for free once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com, or sign up for a credit monitoring service which will provide regular access throughout the year. Unfortunately, there is no single “public records report,” meaning that there’s no way to periodically review a summary of all the information that exists about you from one single source. It does help, though, that a lot of public record information comes from documents you’re likely to already have at home — such as any documents from legal endeavors or your marriage license. You should keep important documents in a single place so that you can readily review them. Make sure that storage place is secure to prevent loss, damage or the risk of identity theft.

What should I do if I catch an error?

If you have reason to believe information in your public record is inaccurate, you have a few options. Errors on your original documentation can often be discussed at your county recorder’s office, where most records are stored, or with whatever agency or business created the original document. If there’s no error on any original documentation, then it’s likely the error emerged from the agency or bureau which collected or produced a report on you, or a result of identity theft. You can file a dispute with any of the three credit report bureaus for incorrect information that appears on any of your credit reports. Remember, if you have any issues or difficulties getting incorrect information taken care of, you can reach out to entities like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or FTC to report companies that fail to practice due diligence with regards to verifying the integrity of their information and investigative processes.

For more information about things that affect your credit, take a look at our credit monitoring blog, where we detail all the facets that go into checking and protecting your credit.