Your credit score, that three-digit number lenders and others use to determine your creditworthiness, is like a spare tire. It’s out of sight, out of mind — until you need it. Then, you hope you have a good one.
You might check your score when you hope to qualify for a credit card, get a car or home loan. Some credit card issuers include your score on statements, and free scores are widely available online.
Don’t stop there. Check your credit reports, too. Credit reports provide the data that go into scores, and inaccurate information can cost you points. Monitoring and fixing credit reports help you put your best foot forward creditwise.
What you’ll see on your credit reports
A credit report is a list of your credit lines and payment history as reported to credit bureaus Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. It will also show when your credit has been checked and by whom. It may contain financial information from public records, such as tax liens or bankruptcies.
Legally, you’re entitled to a free look at your credit report from each bureau at least once every 12 months. You can access them at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Mix-ups do occur. For example, your accounts could be confused with those of a person with the same name. A creditor might transpose digits in your Social Security number or credit your payments to the wrong account.
What to check
You’ll see names you’ve applied for credit under, addresses you’ve used, and your birthdate and Social Security number.
What to look for: A name similar but slightly different from yours could indicate your credit was mixed up with someone else’s.
Be careful if you see an address you don’t recognize with accounts you don’t recall opening. That combination could suggest someone hijacked your personal information and got a credit card in your name.
Reports list your loans and credit cards, along with credit limits, amounts paid and other data. All of those accounts should look familiar.
What to look for: If you see an account you don’t recognize, it still might be legit. Some companies report under a different name; for example, they may use a bank name rather than the store or company name that’s on your credit card. Call the creditor contact number listed on the report to clear up confusion.
Reports also list credit-harming actions such as payments at least 30 days late, collections, defaults and bankruptcy filings.
What to look for: Negative information that’s incorrect, such as missed payments you know you made. Also look for correct information that’s too old to stay on your reports. Most negative information comes off after seven years (10 years for Chapter 7 bankruptcy).
What to do if you find errors
For simple mistakes — someone else’s account mixed with yours or a payment incorrectly labeled late — gather documents supporting your case. Then, file a dispute by using the credit bureau’s online process, by phone or by mail. The bureau has 30 days to respond.
You can also use the dispute process to ask for the removal of information that’s too old to be reported or has reappeared.
Finding accounts that you cannot verify as yours suggests identity theft, which should be investigated. The Federal Trade Commission has a website that walks you through steps to take.
Monitor your credit
Check your reports regularly to make sure they accurately reflect your accounts and the way you’ve paid them, and that information too old to report isn’t lingering.
In between your annual copies from the bureaus, you can get a free credit report at some personal finance websites.
Good credit hygiene — checking that information is accurate, paying on time and using less than 30% of your available credit — will do a lot to keep your score looking good.
Learn more about your credit: