Credit Cards

How to Read Your Free Credit Report

A key step to understanding your creditworthiness is knowing what’s in your credit report and whether it’s accurate.

Any errors on your report could hurt your credit score, making it harder and more expensive to qualify for a loan or credit card. So, it pays to get a copy of yours.

The best place to get any one of your three credit reports is at annualcreditreport.com. By law, you’re entitled to one free report from each bureau—TransUnion, Experian and Equifax—once every 12 months. To access your report(s), you will need to supply your name, birthdate, Social Security number and address, and answer four questions based on information found in your credit report.

What you’ll find

Once in hand, you’ll notice the reports are not carbon copies of each other. Credit accounts may appear on some but not the others, because lenders don’t always report to all three bureaus. But aside from formatting differences, the reports include the following information.

Personal information. This section will include your name and all variations of it, such as maiden names, middle names, middle initials or suffixes. It also will include current and previous addresses, your Social Security number, birthdate, current and previous phone numbers, and any current or past spouses or co-applicants. It could potentially include employment history.

Credit inquiries. Your credit report will list credit inquiries—when lenders and others request your credit report, along with the date the request was made and the reason for the request. The report will list hard inquiries—those that affect your credit score—separately from soft inquiries, which don’t affect your score.

Account information. This section lists the details for each of your accounts.

  • Creditor (and creditor’s address)
  • Credit type (revolving, installment or mortgage)
  • Date opened
  • Payment status (such as closed/open and current/late)
  • Terms
  • Date updated
  • Responsibility (authorized account or primary account)
  • Balance and payment history

Public records, collections or negative accounts. Bankruptcies, judgements, tax liens, accounts in collections and accounts with delinquencies or late payments will be listed on your report, either together under “negative items” or under separate headings.

Consumer/personal statements. You can add explanations of up to 100 words to your credit report on any account or detail you dispute or would like to clarify.

Summary of your rights. The credit bureaus must follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Your rights under the act will be included in your report.

Some reports may provide a first-page summary of your credit file. Others may offer a legend explaining any abbreviations or coding the report may use. If you sign up for a credit monitoring service that provides a three-bureau credit report, it will likely look different than the ones provided by annualcreditreport.com. Copies of reports that you may get from a mortgage lender or auto dealer buddies also will look different and be much harder to understand because they are coded for lenders.

Where to find errors

Now it’s time to review your reports for errors. Some, such as a wrong name, address or employment won’t affect your credit score, but still should be corrected. Other incorrect information could damage your score. Here’s what you should look for:

  • Unfamiliar accounts. An account may have accidentally ended up on your report because it belongs to someone whose name is the same or similar to yours, such as a family member. Or, it could be a sign of identity theft. (In this case, place a fraud alert on your reports.)
  • Inaccurate account details. Make sure balances, credit limits, payment history and other account details are reported accurately.
  • Unexpected inquiries. Make sure you requested each listed hard inquiry. Remember: Ignore inquiries from existing lenders who pull your report for account reviews. These soft inquiries don’t hurt your score.
  • Erroneous collections. Because collection accounts can be sold and resold, the same account can show up on your report multiple times. Make sure each listing reflects its current status—open or closed.
  • Outdated negative information. Negative credit data—including delinquencies, collections, foreclosures and Chapter 13 bankruptcies—must fall of your credit report after seven years by law. Double-check that they have. Chapter 7 bankruptcies stay on reports for 10 years.

How to dispute errors

If you find inaccurate information on one of your credit reports, file a dispute with the bureau that provided the report. You must file a dispute with each bureau if the error appears on all three reports. Each bureau offers an online dispute form.

  • TransUnion dispute form
  • Experian dispute form

You may be asked to provide additional documentation such as bank statements showing payments or cancelled checks to support your dispute. By law, the bureaus must investigate your dispute within 30 days and contact you with the results.

Janna Herron

Janna is a former Senior Writer at ValuePenguin covering banking, credit cards and credit scores. She has spent more than a decade writing and reporting on personal finance, real estate and business, and has received three journalism awards for her work.

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