I still remember the TV commercial with a band, dressed as pirates, singing about how a hacker stole the lead singer’s identity. The singer now had to serve chowder to tourists because he had no credit. The commercial was for FreeCreditReport.com, which isn’t actually free. But the great thing about these commercials (aside from the catchy tunes) is that they made you think about getting a copy of your credit report.
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Let’s talk about what a credit report is, why it’s important, and how to read it.
What is a Credit Report?
A credit report provides information about your credit history. It indicates what type of credit you use, how long your accounts have been open or closed, and whether you pay your bills on time. This is important because lenders use this information to determine how much credit they should consider giving you. The report gives a better picture of your credit history and creditworthiness than your credit score.
There are three major credit bureaus that maintain credit reports: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Because information submitted to these bureaus may differ (for example, a business might only report information to one of them), your credit report from Experian may look slightly different from the TransUnion one.
What’s on Your Credit Report?
Your credit cards will be listed in your credit report, but so will other things. Expect to see your previous addresses, employers, etc. If there are any errors, you may be a victim of identity theft, which is one good reason to regularly check your report.
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Debt and other financial information will be included on your credit report, as well. If you don’t pay your cable bill for several months, your cable company might send you to collections. That will then show up on your report. Medical debt will also appear, in addition to other public information, such as bankruptcy, foreclosures, and tax liens.
When you apply for a loan or a new credit card, you authorize the lender to check your credit report. A hard inquiry indicates that you have requested more credit, such as when you apply for a new student loan, mortgage, or car loan. These inquiries will alter your credit score. As such, if you’re shopping for rates, you should have the inquiries grouped together to prevent a decrease to your credit score. If all the inquiries are in the same two-week period, they count as one.
A soft inquiry, on the other hand, is made by employers or others (such as insurance companies or landlords) who do not seek to give you credit. As such, a soft inquiry won’t influence your credit score.
How to Get a Copy of Your Credit Report
To get a copy of your credit report, you’ll need your Social Security number, date of birth, and addresses for the last two years. You’ll need to answer personal questions like, “In which county did you live in 2008?” or, “Which street did you live on?”
Once you open your credit report, you’ll see personal information, including your Social Security number and any previous names, addresses, and phone numbers that you’ve had. You’ll also be able to look through your credit card accounts. This will indicate whether you are current or delinquent on your payments. The report will also list which accounts have been closed. Any inquiries made on your report will be listed, along with your debt.
You’re entitled to one free report per bureau each year, available only at AnnualCreditReport.com. Unless you plan to apply for a loan, you may want to space out the requests over the course of the year. That way, you can monitor any unexpected changes.
By tracking your credit report over time, you will become more aware of your finances. Plus, you’ll be better prepared when you want to apply for a major loan.