Your Credit Report: Everything You Need to Know
April 6, 2020 | By Coryanne Hicks
Understand what's on your credit report so you can correct errors and identify areas of improvement.
Your Credit Report is a detailed statement of your credit history. It includes your credit card accounts, loans, bill payment history and public records of any bankruptcies, liens or judgments against you. Credit reporting agencies compile this information to determine your credit score.
You can think of your credit report as a paper you write in school and your credit score as the grade on the paper, says Rod Griffin, director of public education and advocacy for credit bureau Experian.
"From buying a family car to renting an apartment or purchasing a home, having a good credit history can open the gate for many of the things we want in life," he says. "Because of this, it's important to know where you stand from a credit perspective, and looking at your credit report is a smart place to start."
What Are Credit Reporting Agencies?
Credit reporting agencies compile and produce credit reports. They gather information on your credit and borrowing history from public records, collections agencies and companies you've done business with that report your payment history to the credit agencies. Then they use this information to produce your credit report.
The three major credit reporting bureaus in the United States are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They are all governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act and overseen by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, but each is a separate entity, says Amy Thomann, head of consumer credit education at TransUnion.
"One helpful way to think about how we work is by looking at the car industry," Griffin says. While the vehicles manufacturers build are similar in construction and how they work, each company does it a little differently. "Similarly, each credit reporting agency provides credit reporting services but (does) so differently in terms of the way we store, collect and provide information."
Each bureau may have different information on file for you because some lenders only report to one or two agencies.
How Do I Get a Free Credit Report From All Three Credit Bureaus?
You are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months. To request yours, go to AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the only website authorized to provide consumers with the free credit reports provided by the law, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
You can request a copy of your report from any or all of the credit reporting agencies.
How Do I Read My Credit Report?
There are six major areas of information on your credit report:
- Account summary: a snapshot of your accounts, inquiries and public records
- Personally identifiable information: your name, address and Social Security number
- Employment history: a list of past employers
- Credit accounts and loans: credit cards and loans you've had in the past seven years
- Collections and public records: any accounts that have gone to collections, bankruptcies, and judgments or liens against you
- Inquiries: a list of the companies that have requested your credit report
"The main thing you'll want to do when reading your credit report is to check on the accuracy of the information," says Mike Kinane, head of U.S. bank cards at TD Bank. "Even minor errors can have an impact on your credit picture and make it more difficult to qualify for a card."
Something as small as the wrong middle initial on your name can suggest someone else's information is on your credit report. A wrong address may signal attempted identity theft.
In the credit accounts section, look for accounts that sound unfamiliar and payments noted as late when they were not, says Katie Bossler, quality assurance specialist at GreenPath Financial Wellness. Also, confirm that any closed credit accounts show up as closed.
Closed accounts could stay on your credit report for up to 10 years and late payments for up to seven years. Because creditors don't always share information with the credit reporting agencies, some accounts may be missing.
In the inquiries section, you'll see soft and hard inquiries. Soft inquiries occur when you check your own credit report or companies inquire into your credit to send you a preapproved offer. Soft inquiries do not impact your credit score.
Hard inquiries occur when a company checks your credit report as part of an application process, such as for a new credit card or a loan. Hard inquiries do impact your credit score.
"While one hard inquiry likely won't have a big effect on your credit score, multiple hard credit card inquiries in a short period of time do have the potential to bring down your score, as it can lead lenders to consider you a higher-risk customer potentially short on cash or getting ready to take on a lot of debt," Kinane says.
Be vigilant about looking for suspicious hard inquiries. "If you see a hard inquiry you didn't approve, you should contact the company that made the inquiry and report the fraud on the FTC's website," says Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling. You should also notify the credit reporting agencies.
If you suspect fraud or are concerned about identity theft, consider placing a fraud alert on your account. This will require businesses to verify your identity before issuing credit. The alert will stay on your account for one year, after which you can request another alert be placed.
You only need to ask one of the credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your account. That agency will then contact the other two on your behalf.
How to Dispute a Credit Report Error
If you notice an error on your credit report, contact both the credit reporting agency and the company that provided the incorrect information. The credit reporting agencies each have an online system for disputes, but the FTC suggests sending a letter via certified mail along with copies of documents demonstrating the inaccuracy.
Credit reporting agencies generally investigate disputes within 30 days. They'll send you a letter with the results of their investigation and a free copy of your revised report if changes were made.
You may request the credit reporting agency send correction notices to any lenders who received your report within the past six months and any employers or potential employers who received it within the past two years.
If the investigation doesn't result in a correction to your report, you can request the agency keep a copy of the dispute on file to include on future reports.
What Does a Good Credit Report Look Like?
"A good credit report will show an accurate and up-to-date picture of your history of managing credit responsibly," Thomann says. "If you've consistently exhibited good credit health habits, that is likely to show up on your report in the form of a variety of accounts and a history of consistently paying them back on time."
A good credit report would also be free of any derogatory information, such as late payments, collections, liens or bankruptcies, she says. "Healthy habits are the foundation of building a healthy credit report, which can, in turn, give you the freedom and flexibility you need to get the financial opportunities you deserve."
To maintain a good credit report, Kinane says to "keep the balance on each credit card at a reasonable percentage of your available credit line," which for most borrowers is at or below 30% of their available credit, "pay your bills on time and pay more than the minimum payments and limit the amount of cards on which you carry a balance."
He adds that it's healthy to have a variety of credit types. "Credit cards, a mortgage, auto loans and student loans are all reflected on a well-rounded consumer's credit report."
Some agencies claim they can clean up or repair your credit report for a fee, but no one can remove accurate information from a credit report.
How Often Should I Check My Credit Report?
It's in your best interest to check your credit report regularly, as errors can be the difference between approval and denial.
"Addressing errors on your report is not a quick fix. It can take several months to have an error removed from your credit report, so you should be monitoring to give yourself more time to address the problem," Kinane says.
Griffin suggests checking your credit report at least once a year. "We also recommend getting a copy of your credit report three to six months ahead of making a large purchase so that you can take any steps that may be needed to improve your credit," he says.
Bossler recommends checking one of your free credit reports every four months so you can monitor any changes.
For instance, you might pull your Experian credit report in January, your Equifax credit report in May and your TransUnion credit report in September of each year. She suggests adding a calendar reminder for when it's time to pull each report.