Easy Money: How to read a credit report

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Easy Money: How to read a credit report

Welcome to Easy Money, where we make super complicated financial stuff simple(r) to help you do it better.

Reading your credit report on a regular basis can increase your financial literacy and empower you as a consumer. Because the information in your credit report determines your credit score and represents your financial history to lenders and creditors, it pays to know what’s inside.

Being familiar with your credit report will prove helpful the next time you submit a credit application or an employer or landlord asks to see it. And if there are any mistakes or inaccuracies in your report, you’ll want to identify them now so you can have them removed.

But for the uninitiated, credit reports can be hard to read. We’ve got you covered: Here’s how to read a credit report.

Request your credit report

There are only three legitimate ways to get your free credit report. You can request it online at AnnualCreditReport.com, call 1-877-322-8228 or complete an Annual Credit Report Request Form (pdf) and mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

If you request your credit report online, you can access it instantly. If you request it by mail or by phone, it may take up to 15 days to fulfill.

Three credit bureaus - Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - each maintain separate versions of your credit report. You can request free copies of all three reports every 12 months. If it has been less than a year, you may have to pay a minimal fee to each credit bureau. You can also get your credit report free any time if you meet one of these exceptions:

  • If a company has notified you that it has taken a negative action against you - such as denying your application for insurance, credit or employment due to the information found in your credit report - within the last 60 days.
  • You’re unemployed and you plan to look for a job within 60 days.
  • Your report is inaccurate because of fraud or identity theft.
  • You’re on welfare.

“It's ... free to request a credit report from each of the three bureaus per year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and checking your own credit (no matter how many times you check) won't harm your score,” said Priyanka Prakash, lending and credit expert at Fundera.

It’s a good idea to request copies of your credit report from all three credit bureaus, as they have different sources and their information may not be exactly the same. Alternatively, you can stagger these requests over 12 months to keep an eye on your credit throughout the year.

When you request your report, you will need to verify your identity using your name, birthday, current and past addresses and your Social Security Number. You may also be asked to verify some financial information regarding accounts or monthly payments.

Remember, your credit report is a living document. You can’t just read it once and then ignore it. Setting an annual reminder to request and read your credit report will help you stay on top of your credit.

Read each section of your credit report

Once you’ve received your credit report, read through each section. Keep an eye out for details. Even small inaccuracies can affect your credit. Credit reports can be dozens of pages or more, so it will help to highlight things you’re not sure about for further research.

As we mentioned, each credit bureau’s version of your credit report may not contain all the same information. One credit bureau may provide more detailed records than another. Carefully review each version of your report.

While they may not look exactly the same or be in the same order, all credit reports contain four major sections.

Section 1: Basic Information

All credit bureaus contain basic identifying information and summary information regarding your report. This information may be combined or split into two subsections.

Identifying information includes your name, birth date, Social Security Number (partially disguised), current and past addresses and contact information. Summary information will include the date your current report was generated, a report ID number, how many accounts you own and if you have a freeze on your report.

If your name is spelled incorrectly or there are addresses you don’t recognize, this could be the result of errors or identity theft. Be sure to verify your personal information is correct.

Section 2: Accounts

Unless you just started building credit, the accounts section should be the most substantial portion of your credit report. This section lists every single credit account (e.g., loans and credit cards) you hold or held within the last seven to 10 years.

The section might be divided into installment accounts (accounts with fixed monthly payments, such as a mortgage) and revolving accounts (accounts with fluctuating monthly payments, such as a credit card). Each account will contain highly detailed information, including:

  • Name and address of the company
  • Account number
  • Date the account was opened and date the account was closed (if applicable)
  • If you are the sole owner, a joint owner or an authorized user
  • Whether the account is open or closed, and if you’re current on payments
  • The current balance on the account and the credit limit or original amount of the loan
  • Payment history
  • When the account was last updated on your credit report

You should verify you actually own all of the accounts in this section - if you see an account you never opened, you will need to get it removed. Look out for duplicate records of the same account. After that, verify the details, including status, account type and payment history. All this information affects your credit score and how you appear to lenders.

Remember, the information in your credit report may not be up to the minute, so check when the account was last updated.

“Accounts in good standing will be labeled as such or as ‘on time,’” said Prakash. “When reviewing your report, look for mistakes in personal information and accounts that you've never opened. Also look for accounts that you've paid off already which erroneously list an outstanding balance. Those are all errors that you can dispute following the credit bureau's dispute process.”

Section 3: Public records

The public records section contains negative information that could be dragging down your credit score. This includes delinquent accounts, accounts that have been sent to collections, court judgments, liens and bankruptcies.

Information in this section is probably the most damaging to your credit, so review it for accuracy. Verifying accounts in collections can be difficult, as it may be the debt collector and not the original creditor that is listed. You might have to contact the company named on your credit report to sort out the original account.

Most of this information will fall off your credit report after seven years. However, Chapter 7 bankruptcies remain on your report and affect your credit for 10 years.

Section 4: Credit Inquiries

Credit inquiries occur when someone checks your credit report with or without your permission. These inquiries can affect your credit score, and stay on your credit report for up to two years.

Hard inquiries occur when you authorize a potential creditor to pull your credit report, typically when you’re applying for a loan or credit card. These inquiries can cause a temporary dip in your credit score, but the long-term damage should be minimal provided you don’t apply for too many loans or credit cards at once.

Soft inquiries don’t affect your credit, and creditors can‘t see them. They only show up on the credit reports you personally request. These inquiries usually happen when someone checks your credit report for a reason unrelated to a credit application. This could be a landlord or employer check, or a potential creditor preparing to make you a pre-approval offer.

The inquiry will list the name and contact information of the company that pulled your credit report and the date your credit was pulled. You may wish to dispute hard inquiries that you didn’t initiate.

Other sections

Your credit reports may contain other sections, including a summary of your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, contact information for the credit bureaus and how to start the dispute process. These sections are worth reading, but your identifying and financial information is what makes up your credit.

Remember, credit reports don’t contain information on your income, your assets and investments or your bank account balance.

What to do if you find inaccurate information

The most important thing you can do when you read your credit report is look for inaccurate information, especially when it reflects poorly on your creditworthiness. Remember, you have the legal right to a correct credit report, and fighting for fairness and accuracy is worth the effort.

Disputing inaccurate information is time-consuming and can be labor intensive, but once you’ve reviewed your credit report you’ve already done much of the work. After that, it’s time to start the dispute process.

Recommended Reading

Found a mistake on your credit report? Check out our article on how to dispute credit report mistakes.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a good list of common credit report errors to look for.

The CFPB also has an informative FAQ section on your credit score and the information in your credit report.

Want to know more about the difference between hard and soft inquiries? Experian breaks it down.

Need to improve your credit fast? Check out our tips.

Image: Wavebreakmedia