There are three major credit reporting agencies within the United States: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. These are the organizations that lenders go through to verify potential borrowers credit worthiness.
Federal Law indicates that individuals are able to receive one copy of their credit report from each of the three agencies annually, and at no charge. It’s a good idea to look it over once a year to make sure there are no errors or omissions.
How do you read a credit report? There are abbreviations and numbers and codes, and for people who are looking at them for the first time, they can be a little confusing.
Obtaining Credit Reports
In order to get your free credit reports each year, you can go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, which is the only authorized source for free annual credit reports under the September 1, 2005 federal law. If you go directly to the credit reporting agencies, there will be a charge to view your report- unless you qualify for another criteria to view a free report (being denied credit, for example).
If you want to monitor your credit report more often than annually, you can sign up for reports at any of the three credit reporting agencies, and pay about $10 per report. You will want to view the report at all three agencies, unfortunately, because the information is not exactly the same and you need to check for errors at all locations.
Reading Credit Reports
Credit reports are divided into four different segments: identifying information about the individual, credit history, public records, and inquiries made to the credit file.
Identifying information should include your name and address, and social security number. If you see a few variations of your name or more than one social security number, it’s because one of your creditors has reported it incorrect, but that information should remain because taking it off can hurt the connection between the report and the creditors who use it.
Identifying information also includes your employer(s), driver’s license numbers and sometimes your spouse’s name.
Credit history includes a list of individual accounts and account numbers (which may be encrypted). Information for each account will usually show the date it was opened, the type of credit (mortgage, car loan, installment, revolving), total amount of your loan and the amount you still owe, as well as the status of the account (open, closed, paid as agreed, inactive) and how you’ve been making payments on the account (on time, 30 days late, 90 days late, etc).
Public records is a section that you hope has nothing in it. This section provides details for bankruptcies, tax liens and judgments. This section will lower your credit score faster than anything else can.
Inquiries provide a list of “hard” inquiries- credit you’ve applied for and can affect your credit score- although FICO ignores most inquiries when coming up with their scores for individuals, and “soft” inquiries from credit card lenders who check your file before sending out promotional credit card offers. Soft inquiries do not raise or lower your credit score.
What to Do with Mistakes on Your Credit Report
If you find mistakes on your credit report- such as incorrectly reported amounts on an account, or an account that doesn’t belong to you, you can fill out the dispute form included on a mailed copy of a credit report, or use an online form to dispute the discrepancy online.
The credit reporting agency must then verify the information within 30 days of your filing the dispute (or the mistake must be removed). If they find it to be correct, and you still disagree- you can contact the creditor directly to have it corrected. If they find the information you’ve disputed to be incorrect, they are required to remove the item from your credit report.