What do a credit report and a pirate have in common? I’ll tell you.

I still remember the TV commercial with a band, dressed as pirates, singing about how a hacker stole the identity of the lead singer, and how he now had to serve chowder to tourists because he had no credit.

The commercial was silly, but it did make you think about getting a copy of your credit report. 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 and at what interest rate.

The report gives a better picture of your credit history and creditworthiness than your credit score does.

There are three major credit bureaus that maintain credit reports: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Information submitted to these bureaus may differ. For example, a business might report information to only one of them. As a result, your credit report from Experian might look slightly different from the TransUnion one.

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What’s on Your Credit Report?

Your credit report doesn’t list only your credit cards. Expect to see your previous addresses, employers, loans, and so on. If there are any errors, you may be a victim of identity theft, which is one good reason to check your report regularly.

Your credit report will include debt and other financial information, as well. If you don’t pay your cable bill for several months, for instance, the cable company might send your unpaid balance to a collection agency. That will then show up on your report and will negatively impact your credit score.

Your medical debt will also appear, in addition to other public information, such as bankruptcy, foreclosures, and tax liens.

What Do People Use It For?

When you apply for a loan, fill out an apartment application, or apply for 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. While you’re shopping for rates, you should have the inquiries grouped together. This decreases the impact it will have on your credit score. You should also do it within the shortest period of time possible, though you cannot avoid the impact altogether.

“Hard inquiries will always alter your credit score,” says chartered financial analyst Lou Haverty.

“But the inquiries hold only a small weighting [10 percent] against your entire score, so it’s not hugely significant unless you check your credit excessively.” Grouping the inquiries together will minimize the impact, but won’t prevent your score from being negatively affected.

Not all shopping windows are created equal, though. “The latest FICO scoring model allows for consumers to have a shopping window of 45 days and the Vantage scoring model allows for 14 days,” says Nathalie Noisette, founder of Credit Conversion. “All inquiries generated within that time will not be counted against you and will be grouped into ‘one inquiry’ as far as the impact to your score is concerned.”

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, according to Haverty. As such, a soft inquiry won’t influence your credit score, as it’s not linked to a specific credit request.

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How to Get a Copy of Your Credit Report

To obtain 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 security questions like, “In which county did you live in 2008?” or “Which street did you live on?”

What Is a Credit Report and Why Is It Important? A #creditreport 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.

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 any payments.

The report will also list which accounts have been closed. Any inquiries made on your report will be there, too, along with your debt. That’s how credit reporting works. If you find that your credit needs repair, there are companies that can help you.

You’re entitled to one free report per bureau every 12 months, 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.

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By tracking your credit report over time, you will become more aware of your finances. Plus, you’ll be better prepared if and when you want to apply for a major loan.

Additional reporting by Kelly Meehan Brown.