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Landlords use secret algorithms to screen potential tenants

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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If you’ve ever applied to rent a home or apartment, you may have a tenant score. Tenant scores are different from your credit score. Tenant screening companies plug your personal details into secret algorithms and rate you as a potential tenant. These scores can have a huge impact on your life when you’re trying to get approved for an apartment.

Unlike with credit scores, federal regulators do not review the tenant scoring models or algorithms. There is little guidance available on how to improve your score. It’s not even easy to find out whether a company has given you a score.

My former apartment building used a tenant screening company called LeasingDesk, so I requested to see my file through LeasingDesk’s website. Five days later, a one-page report showed up in my inbox. It contained a surprising amount of detail about me, with everything from my previous address at a house where I sublet a room one summer in college nearly 20 years ago to a $100 late fee I paid in 2018. I had no evictions or criminal history, but the report was full of information that could hurt my ability to negotiate a lower rent price if shared with future landlords. However, the report did not show my tenant score.

When I called LeasingDesk, a customer service representative told me the company deletes all scores 60 days after a screening.

But the consumer lawyers we spoke with for this project expressed doubts my score had been deleted, saying they had requested and seen much older tenant scores and reports during lawsuits against LeasingDesk’s parent company, RealPage Inc. I decided to keep trying, and sent LeasingDesk another request for my score via a certified letter. In an Aug. 27 email, the company assigned my request a case number but gave no hints about when I might receive a response or whether it would include my score.

Tenant scores affect a lot of people, and that’s why we are reporting on it. We would appreciate hearing about your experiences with these companies, too. Tell us about your tenant scores and how they compare to your credit scores below.

Do I have a tenant score?

Maybe. Many tenants are unaware they have been rated by a tenant screening company.

Depending on the laws in your state, your landlord may not be required to share your score or your screening report with you unless you are denied housing. The best way to find out if you have a tenant score is to ask your landlord or property manager for the name of the tenant screening companies they used to screen you, according to San Francisco attorney Craig Davis.

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How can these scores affect me?

Landlords may use tenant scores to decide whether to rent to you or how much to charge you for a security deposit. We have heard from tenants who say scores have impacted their ability to find housing. Other renters have reported being denied for apartments or asked to pay double in security deposits because of their tenant scores.

Where do I find my score?

Some tenants receive their scores in housing approval or denial letters. If you haven’t, Davis recommends asking your landlord or property manager for your screening report. Davis said he’s heard from some clients that property managers and landlords have pushed back against these requests, saying they can’t release the reports to tenants directly. But Davis said you have the right to see your report. In fact, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires tenant screening companies to provide you with a report upon request listing all the information the company has on you.

My score is bad. What can I do to improve it?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends checking your report for any inaccurate information. You have the right to dispute any incorrect information and ask for the screening company to remove it from your file. You can use the same contact methods as below. If the company says it has received information from court records or credit agencies, you will need to fix your record with those agencies first.

What should I know when I apply for housing in the future?

Here’s some advice from the CFPB:

  • If you are applying as a tenant for a residential property, ask the management company for the names of all consumer reporting companies it will be using to screen you.
  • Contact the tenant screening companies to fact-check your information and dispute any inaccuracies. A tenant screening report with negative information in it, such as prior housing evictions, could result in a rejected lease application, or it may get approved but with tough conditions inserted into the lease agreement such as requiring you to pay 12 months of rent in advance.
  • If a landlord refuses to rent to you or charges you more because of something in a background check, be sure to know your rights and protections.

How do I request my score from a screening company?

It’s unclear how many tenant screening companies exist. There is no comprehensive list, so below we’ve compiled a list of a dozen of the more well-known tenant screening companies with directions on how to request your free report, which may contain your score.

Many of these screening companies allow you to request your report online, over the phone or by mail. But before they send you a report, you will often need to verify your identity by providing your Social Security number, date of birth and a photocopy of your driver’s license. If you are wary about giving out this kind of personal information, ask if they can process your request using just your name and the last four digits of your Social Security number.

  • AmRent: You can call 888-898-6196 to request your file.
  • AppFolio: You can fill out this online form with your name, address and date of birth.
  • Contemporary Information Corp. (CIC): A customer service representative said the company only accepts requests in writing. There is an online form you can fill out, or you can email your request to Compliance@CICReports.com.
  • Experian RentBureau: You can call 877-704-4519 to request your report. You can also mail your request.
  • First Advantage Corporation Resident Solutions: You can call 800-845-6004 and ask for your tenant screening report. (The company also screens job applicants.)
  • LeasingDesk: You can enter your name and email address in this online request form. The company will email you a link to the full request form. You will need to provide your name, your date of birth, your previous addresses and the last four digits of your Social Security number.
  • On-Site: You can make an online request by providing your name, your email address and the name of the rental building that screened you.
  • RentGrow: You can request a copy of your tenant screening report online.
  • RentPrep: You can fill out this form and email it to screening@rentprep.com or send it in by mail. Make sure to check the box stating “I would like to request a copy of my consumer report.”
  • SafeRent Solutions: You can fill out this form and email it to consumerrequests.rps@corelogic.com.
  • Screening Reports: You can call 866-389-4042 to request your report.
  • TransUnion SmartMove: You can call 800-230-9376 and ask for your “ResidentScore.” A customer service representative can look up your score if you have been screened in the past 60 days. You can also email your request to myreports@transunion.com.

The company won’t turn over my score. What can I do?

Next steps could include consulting a lawyer or sending a formal records request by mail. I mailed a certified letter to RealPage’s corporate headquarters, asking for my full consumer file, including my tenant reports and scores and the dates those scores were calculated. I also asked them to provide a list of landlords or companies who had received information about me.

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It’s unclear how many tenant screening companies exist.