Think of your credit report as a financial bill of health.

To some extent, ignoring the information on this document would be like disregarding the medical history of a patient. Although the consequences are obviously quite different, they are negative nonetheless.

When lenders and credit card issuers decide to extend you credit, they will first review your credit reports. The information helps them determine:

  • How risky it may be to loan you money.
  • What your interest rate will be.

If you have questions about credit reports, scores or anything in-between,  you're in luck. Let's dive in.

Where do you find your credit reports?

There are three major credit bureaus that issue credit reports:

  • TransUnion Credit Bureau.
  • Experian Credit Bureau.
  • Equifax Credit Bureau.

These companies have reports that detail your credit activity and history. Reviewing these reports is the best way to track your creditworthiness. This will help you avoid any unpleasant surprises when you apply for a loan, such as home financing. It’s also important to look for errors on your credit reports as they may be lowering your credit scores.

Fortunately, you are entitled to a free report from each of the three credit bureaus at least once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also request a report if you are turned down for credit or if you suspect fraud.

What information does your credit report contain?

While some credit reports may vary slightly, here is what you can a standard credit report to include:

Personal information

The report will include your Social Security number and birth date. It will contain every variation of your name used on credit applications, such as a maiden name or middle initial. This section will also include current and previous addresses, phone numbers and employers.

As you look over your credit reports, scan for addresses and phone numbers you don’t recognize. Information that doesn’t pertain to you could be the result of identity theft in which someone is using your personal data to open fraudulent accounts in your name.

Account information

The core of your credit report is the account section. It will include loans you’ve taken out and credit cards, as long as they haven’t gone to collections or been defaulted on.

Account information will include:

  • Name and address of the creditor, along with the type of account, account number and date opened.
  • Account status, including whether you’re current on payments. Any closed accounts will appear on the report.
  • Whether you are an individual or joint owner of the account, or an authorized user.
  • Credit limit or amount loaned.

Carefully look over your account information for errors. If you have always paid on time but the report reflects a late payment, you want to have that corrected. Accounts that you have closed that appear as open should be addressed as well.

Also ensure that account limits and loan amounts are correct. An error can negatively affect your credit utilization ratio —  the percentage of your available credit that you have borrowed.

For example, if you have a credit card limit of $10,000 with a balance of $7,500, your credit utilization is 75 percent.

Because higher credit utilization can negatively impact your credit score, it's important to ensure this ratio is accurate.

Negative information

This section lists accounts in which you have not kept up on payments. Anything that has entered collections, been subject to a court judgement or bankruptcy filings will appear.

Needless to say, this information will adversely affect your credit report. It typically remains on your reports for seven years, though bankruptcies will stay on for 10 years.

Because of the negative impact, be sure to deal with errors in this section as quickly as possible.

Credit inquiries

This section lists instances in which someone has checked your credit. This occurs when you:

  • Apply for a loan.
  • Apply for new credit or limit increases.
  • Fill out rental or utility applications.

There are two types of inquiries:

  • Hard inquires occur when you authorize a potential creditor to review your credit as part of the application. Hard inquiries typically cause your credit score to decrease.
  • Soft inquiries occur when a person or company checks your credit report for background. This typically occurs during a pre-approval or pre-qualification process. Soft inquiries have no affect on your credit score.

How to read your credit reports

Each of the bureau’s reports will look different and use different codes. Fortunately, each offers a user guide explaining where to find information and what those codes mean.

You can find them below:

What to do if you find errors

If you see errors that may be lowering your credit score, you can challenge the information and have it changed. You will need documentation to back up your claim of an error, such as proof that you made a payment on time.

Once you have documentation, you can dispute a bureau’s report by going to the following web pages:

Key takeaways

Although you will probably only need to check you credit report once or twice a year, this may increase if you experience major financial changes. And when the time to do so comes, it helps to be familiar with:

  • The three major credit bureaus.
  • What information your credit report(s) will contain.
  • How to dispute suspicious information and activity.

The cleaner you keep your credit report now, the better off your financial bill of health will be moving forward.

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