While your credit score provides a glimpse into your creditworthiness, your credit report provides details of who you are as a consumer. When you apply for something major, like a mortgage, it’s what lenders rely on to determine whether or not to lend money to you. When you suspect something is way off, it’s what you should turn to in order protect your financial interests.
What’s in it?
- The basics…including your name, Social Security number, telephone number, address, past addresses, employer, past employers, and (if applicable) your spouse's name.
- Information on every creditor you’ve done business with…including your payment history, and account status. It will also indicate charge-offs and repossessions, plus notations of bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments, or even criminal proceedings.
- Various ‘inquiries’ and notations…in other words, companies or individuals that have requested your report within the past 24 months – from credit card applications submitted by you to prescreens you might have had nothing to do with.
Why do inquiries matter?
If you have too many inquiries on your credit report within too short a period of time, lenders could become nervous. They might assume you’re taking out too much debt, or being turned down repeatedly for credit.
What does a credit report have to do with protection?
In a word: everything. You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit bureaus. You would be wise to take advantage of it. You don’t have to order a report from all three, but spacing out your requests over the year can be a good way to keep an eye on the accuracy and completeness of the information in your reports. Note: Credit reporting bureaus get their information from different sources, so the information in your report from one bureau may not reflect all, or the same, information in your reports from the other two. That doesn’t mean the information in any of your reports is necessarily inaccurate, it just may be different.
When you sit down to read your report, look out for clues of financial malfeasance – in other words, things that don’t look quite right. That might include inconsistencies like a misspelled name, accounts you didn’t open, inquiries you didn’t authorize, and unfinished business you need to handle.
What kind of unfinished business?
The number of accounts you have open on your credit report affects your credit score. That’s especially true for accounts that are open and close to their limit. Therefore, it’s important that you:
- Pay down your debts on time, every time – and pick your credit wisely.
- When you come across inactive accounts from lenders you no longer do business with, “finish the business” by contacting them in writing and asking them to close it.
- Actually, always correspond in writing. And when you request to close any accounts, ask companies to notate that it was done at your request.
How does one handle ‘malfeasance’ and other ‘not-quite-right’ scenarios?
Under federal law, you have a right to dispute incorrect or misleading information on your credit report. The first step is writing to the credit reporting bureaus directly. After that, it’s a matter of process and protocol.
Once the credit bureau receives your request, it has 30 days to complete an investigation. After that, your dispute will play out in one of these four ways:
- The credit bureau investigates; the party submitting the information agrees it’s incorrect; and the information is corrected
- The credit bureau investigates; the party submitting the information maintains it’s correct; and your credit report goes unchanged
- The credit bureau doesn’t investigate; so the disputed information must be removed from your report
- The credit bureau investigates; the party submitting the information doesn’t respond; and so the disputed information must be removed from your report
You can order your free annual report online at www.annualcreditreport.com, by calling 877-322-8228, or by completing an Annual Report Request Form and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
You can also contact each of the three credit bureaus directly:
Experian National Consumer Assistance Center
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013-2104
Trans Union LLC, Consumer Disclosure Center
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374
Online requests will give you immediate access. If you request your report(s) by phone or mail, you should receive it within 15 days.