When you’re trying to build your credit — or just being vigilant about avoiding identity theft — it’s important to check your credit report regularly. Each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) will provide you with a free credit report once every 12 months, upon request. But when you receive that credit report, it isn’t always easy to know what to look for or what to do if you believe the report contains incorrect information. Let’s break it down.
Credit Report, Credit Score — What’s the Difference?
While the credit score may be the most talked-about item on your credit report, the credit report is bigger than just a numerical rating. (And it’s important to note: Your score is not included in the free report. However, you can order it through the same website, which is the only one authorized by federal law, for a fee.)
The credit report itself is “a detailed listing of all your debts and payments, going back through your entire payment history,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network. “For each credit account you have, the report shows creditors' names, the amount owed, the highest balance owed, available credit, whether the account is open or closed (and who closed it), the number of times a payment was past due and whether the account is in default.”
The five sections of your credit report include:
- Identifying information. This is where you’ll find your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and aliases. Gallegos recommends reviewing this information carefully to be sure it is accurate. “If it is not, you could be held responsible for debts that are not yours,” he says.
- Creditor information. Usually the longest section, this is a list of every credit account you have had, with information about the lender, how much you owe, whether the account is current or past due, whether it is open or closed and other status information. Review it to make sure each account belongs to you and that all information is accurate.
- Collection accounts. This section will list any accounts in collection. If your report shows some, make sure it is accurate. “Contact collectors to be sure the debt is yours,” Gallegos says. “If so, work to repay it as soon as possible. Then ask the agency to send a letter to you and the credit bureaus stating the debt has been paid. If a debt is not yours, ask the collection agency to send a letter stating that information to you and to the credit bureau.”
- Public records. Here, you’ll find information about public financial records such as bankruptcy judgments, liens and overdue child support. Again, review for accuracy — serious financial problems and bankruptcy filings could remain here for seven to 10 years.
- Inquiry section. This is a list of businesses that have reviewed your credit report. “If you see unfamiliar names, contact them to find out why they were reviewing your credit,” Gallegos says.