Regularly reviewing your credit reports lets you check for errors that might be lowering your credit scores, and it can tip you off to potential identity theft. You can use the dispute process to get mistakes removed, which may help you qualify for credit or get better terms.
You can get free credit report information two ways:
- You’re entitled to a free report direct from the three credit bureaus at least once a year by accessing AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Some personal finance websites, including NerdWallet, offer free credit report information on demand so you can check more often than annually.
Other circumstances, such as being turned down for credit or placing a fraud alert on your credit, can entitle you to additional reports. In addition, some states mandate additional free copies of your credit reports.
What’s on your credit reports, and what should you check?
Getting a credit report is easy, but understanding the data reported can be tricky. Here’s a summary of each of the basic sections, as well as an explanation of any terms that may not be straightforward.
Each credit bureau organizes its reports differently, so the sections may fall in a different order, but all of your reports have the same basic parts.
Your personal information will include names you’ve used, current and previous addresses and phone numbers, Social Security number — partially masked for security — birthdate, and current and previous employers.
Don’t be surprised if there are a few different spellings of your name. Variations you’ve used on credit applications will pop up, such as married and maiden name, with and without middle name or initial, the short version of your first name, etc.
Keep an eye out for addresses you don’t recognize — especially if you later spot accounts you don’t recognize.
If one or more of your employers or telephone numbers is missing, it’s not a big deal. But keep an eye out for addresses you don’t recognize — especially if you later spot accounts you don’t recognize. That suggests someone has used your personal information to open fraudulent accounts in your name and is diverting bills elsewhere so you won’t be alerted.
This section lists all of your accounts that haven’t gone to collections or been defaulted on. This is the meat of your credit report.
Each account has a summary at the top. Check to make sure you recognize the following items:
- Name and address of the creditor, account number and date opened
- Status of the account — such as whether it’s open or closed or has been transferred — and whether you’re current on payments
- Type of account (credit card, student loan, etc.)
- Whether you’re an individual or joint owner of the account or simply an authorized user
- Credit limit or original amount of the installment loan
You’ll also see balance and payment information, including the date when the creditor last sent account data to the bureau. Don’t expect it to reflect your balance as of today. For example, even if you pay your credit card in full every month, your report may show a balance if your card activity was reported in the middle of the billing cycle.
Make sure your payment history doesn’t show errors, such as a late payment when you paid on time.
Make sure your payment history doesn’t show errors, such as a late payment when you paid on time. You’ll also want to make sure your account limits are correct, as this can affect your credit utilization ratio — and that’s a big factor in credit scores.
If an account has been closed, your report will note who closed the account and when. Closed accounts in good standing can stay on your credit reports indefinitely. But accounts closed by the creditor because you didn’t pay as agreed should fall off seven years after the account first went delinquent.
Negative INFORMATION, IF ANY
The negative information section will list accounts that haven’t been paid as agreed, collections and public records such as court judgments, liens and bankruptcies. Negative information generally stays on your credit report for seven years, with the exception of Chapter 7 bankruptcies, which stay on your report for 10 years.
Negative information generally stays on your credit report for seven years.
In this section, you’ll want to make sure any negative information is accurate. If you see incorrect accounts or collections or if something is being listed after it was supposed to have dropped off, dispute the entries immediately to have them removed from your report.
INquiries on your credit
This section lists times when someone checked your credit. You’ll see inquiries when you applied for new credit or limit increases, as well as ones related to things like housing or utility applications.
Entries may be separated by type. Hard inquiries happen when you authorize a potential creditor to check your file as part of an application. These can cause a small, temporary dip in your credit scores.
Soft inquiries, which don’t affect your credit scores, happen when you check your own credit or a potential creditor sees if it wants to send you a promotional offer.
Both types of inquiries will include the name and address of the organization, as well as the date. Make sure that all hard inquiries were authorized by you and that they fall off your report after two years.
What if you need to dispute an item?
If you spot inaccuracies that may be lowering your scores, gather documentation to back up your claim and contact the bureau showing the error:
- How to dispute your Equifax credit report
- How to dispute your Experian credit report
- How to dispute your TransUnion credit report
The bureau has 30 days to respond.
Updated Oct. 24, 2017.