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How to Read Your Credit Report: Red Flags and Errors You Should Dispute

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Your personal credit can play a critical role in your livelihood, as it may impact how creditors, landlords, insurers, and employers view you. Knowing how to read a credit report, as well as dispute and correct inaccuracies, can help you stay on top of your finances, keep your credit score in good shape, and know what changes to make to reach your financial goals faster.

A credit report is an ever-evolving history of your financial past. Here’s what you need to know to dig into yours.

What Is a Credit Report?

A credit report is all of the information that one of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion—has compiled about you.

Each credit bureau, also called a consumer reporting company, maintains credit files filled with personal financial information on millions of people. Your credit report contains historical information about your loans and lines of credit, payment history on various accounts, and personal information, such as your name, address, and employer.

While all credit reports compile similar information, the bureaus are also competitors. Since information isn’t shared from credit bureau to credit bureau, your credit reports may look different depending on which bureau compiled the report.

How to Get Your Credit Report

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to access your own credit reports, often free of charge. You can get a free copy of your credit report from each bureau at least once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com. (In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can request weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com until April 2021.)

If you were denied credit, you also have the right to request a copy of your credit report from the credit bureaus the lender used to make its decision. And, if you’re job seeking in the next 60-days, you may be eligible for a free report.

Outside of these situations, you can also request a copy directly from the credit bureaus at any time, though you may need to pay a fee.

How to Read Your Credit Report

Your credit report may look different depending on where you get it. No matter the source, credit reports are generally broken up into several sections. Here’s what you can expect:

Summary

Near the top, you may see a summary of the information that’s in your credit report including:

  • Date when the report was created
  • Average age of your accounts
  • Length of your credit report
  • Highlight of accounts with potentially negative information

Red flags:

If the summary shows accounts with negative information and you’ve never missed a payment, take a closer look at those accounts. You may need to call those creditors to learn more and get to the bottom of it.

Identifying Information

You may also find an overview of the personal information that the credit bureaus have about you near the beginning of your report. This may include your legal name, aliases, date of birth, and part of your Social Security number. There could also be current and previous addresses, employers, and phone numbers listed here.

Red flags:

An incorrect name spelling, address you don’t recognize, or an incorrect Social Security number are potential red flags. While it isn’t uncommon for a creditor to misspell your name, a different first or last name on your report could be a sign of identity theft. Addresses you don’t recognize could indicate someone attempted to open a card in your name and had it mailed to a different address. Incomplete or incorrect Social Security numbers could simply be a technical error or a warning of identity theft.

Bottom line: pay careful attention to this section. If you spot something unusual, immediately open a dispute with the credit bureau. They will investigate and give you next steps if fraud is suspected.

Consumer Statement

You can choose to add a consumer statement to your credit report, such as an explanation for why you missed a payment or why you think something is being incorrectly reported.

Red flags:

Sometimes, an account with negative information can fall off your credit report, but the consumer statement remains. Make sure you aren’t referencing a late payment or other negative information that someone wouldn’t otherwise know about.

Accounts

The accounts section is the meat of a credit report as this is where you’ll find your credit cards, personal loans, student loans, mortgages, auto loans, lines of credit, and other types of credit accounts listed.

Your accounts may be separated into one section for accounts in good standing, and another for accounts that are past-due or have previously missed payments. Closed accounts can stay on your credit report for up to ten years, but may be listed separately.

Each account, also called a tradeline, will include details about the loan or line of credit, including:

  • Type of account
  • Account number
  • Date of last payment
  • Monthly payment amount
  • Current payment status, current balance
  • List of previous payments

Red flags:

Look for accounts you don’t recognize, as those may be fraudulent. If you’ve missed payments, those can appear in the payment history and indicate how late your payment was (30, 60, 90, etc. days late). Look over these details carefully to make sure you agree with any negative information listed here, and that what's noted is completely correct. Dispute any incorrect information with the credit bureau. Keep in mind, if you have multiple inaccuracies you may need to file multiple disputes.

Inquiries

An inquiry is a record of requests for your credit report. These are separated into hard credit inquiries, such as when a creditor needs to make a lending decision, and soft credit inquiries, for non-lending purposes.

For example, your current credit card issuer will request your credit report (a hard credit pull, or inquiry) to determine if it should change your credit limit. Or, lenders may do a soft credit pull to provide you an estimated loan offer. It’s important to know the difference between hard and soft credit inquiries, and that soft inquiries do not affect your credit score. Certain soft inquiries show up as "promotional" on your credit report, such as those performed by an existing creditor who wants to extend you a new offer of credit. These also do not impact your credit score.

Red flags:

If you see an account with a hard inquiry on your report that you don’t remember applying for, it could indicate someone has tried to get credit in your name. If you see an account you don’t recognize, start by contacting the creditor’s fraud department to have the account investigated. Next, file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (you can do this online). Finally, dispute the account with the credit bureau. The bureau may recommend freezing your credit temporarily while it investigates.

Collections

If one of your accounts is sold or sent to collections, the account may appear closed in the “accounts” section, however, the collection agency may report your collections account. This can include credit cards and loans, but also bills not usually reported to the credit bureaus, such as cellphone plans, utility bills, and subscription services.

Red flags:

Collection accounts may include fees and interest, so the amount due might be more than you remember (which is not unusual). However, a collection for an account you never opened could potentially be identity theft. While on the decline a few years ago, identity theft is on the rise once again. So, if you don’t recognize the original creditor, open a dispute with the credit bureaus, and file an identity theft report with the FTC.

Public Records

If you’ve filed for bankruptcy within the last 10 years, a record of this may appear within the public records section of your credit report. Previously, civil judgments and tax liens were included in credit reports as well, but that’s no longer the case.

Red flags:

A misreported bankruptcy filing could be disastrous for your credit. If the filing dates are incorrect, you may have a negative hit to your credit report for longer than necessary. Be sure to double check dates and filing info. Dispute any public record inaccuracies with the credit bureau, immediately.

Who Can Access Your Report and How Can They Use It?

Another person (or organization) can access your credit report only in certain situations, and there are limitations on how they may use your report. One of the main governing laws is a federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires companies to have one of the listed “permissible purposes” for viewing your credit.

For example, when you apply for new credit and give permission to pull your credit report. Or, if you’re already a customer, the company can continue to review your credit.

However, you don’t always have to give permission for a company or person to have a permissible purpose to request a copy of your credit report. For example, a credit bureau doesn’t need your permission to send a copy of your report to an organization in response to a court order.

Also, if you received a credit card or loan offer in the mail, your contact information was likely part of a prescreened list. Credit bureaus compile prescreened marketing lists based on specific criteria, such as credit records and demographics, and, as a result, you may see a record of a soft credit pull in your credit history.

There are limitations on how organizations can use your credit reports, and these may vary from state to state. For example, employers can often request special reports that won’t contain certain personal information (such as your age or your credit score). But in some states, employers are not permitted to review your credit report at all as part of the hiring or promotion process. And, certain states limit how insurers can use credit when offering or pricing insurance policies.

How Your Credit Report Relates to Your Credit Scores

Your credit reports are often the sole basis for your credit scores. However, credit scores only examine certain parts of your credit reports to determine your scores.

For example, with VantageScore and FICO scores, your personal information never impacts your credit scores, however, your account information, public records, and hard inquiries do.

There are many different credit scores and you won’t necessarily know which credit score a creditor will use to evaluate your application. That’s why reading and understanding your credit report is important because the different scoring models will determine your scores based on the same underlying credit report.

You want to make sure there aren’t any errors in your reports, because erroneous negative items could hurt your credit scores. In turn, lower credit scores can make it more difficult to get a new loan or credit card, and lead to higher interest rates if you are approved.

Keep in mind, most credit reports—including the free copies you can obtain once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com—will not include your credit scores. You’ll need to order your credit scores through MyFICO or the credit bureaus, or purchase a combined credit report and credit score, to see both.

How to Dispute Inaccuracies in Your Credit Report

Learning how to read a credit report can help you identify errors, which you can then correct by filing a dispute directly with the credit bureaus. You may need to do this three times, once with each bureau, if the error appears on all three reports.

The credit bureau generally has 30 days to investigate your claim and respond to your dispute. It may find that the information is correct and leave your credit report unchanged, update your credit report with corrected information, or delete the disputed information entirely. Disputing errors can be helpful because your credit score may rise when negative information is corrected or deleted by the credit bureaus.

The easiest way to initiate a dispute is through the credit bureaus' online dispute systems. You can find these on the Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion websites.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do credit bureaus get their information?

Much of the information that credit reports have on consumers is voluntarily sent to them by creditors and collection agencies. Creditors do this, in part, to incentivize their customers to pay on time (as customers know a late payment can hurt their credit). Additionally, credit bureaus actively collect or purchase data from public records.

What if I am new to credit?

If you've never applied for or taken out a loan or credit card, your information might not be in the credit bureaus’ credit files. As a result, you might not have a credit report and won’t be “scorable” as the scoring models don’t have any, or enough, information to analyze.

What is a good credit score?

Credit scores commonly range from 300 up to 850. A score in the mid-600s or above may be considered a good score, however, higher scores may make it easier to get approved for a new loan or line of credit with favorable terms. Regardless of your score, creditors will also take into account the underlying information in your credit report to make their determination on whether or not to lend.

Can I dispute a credit score?

You can't dispute your credit scores. However, if you think your score is lower than it should be, closely review your credit reports for negative information that may be hurting your scores. If any of that information isn’t accurate, it’s good practice to file a dispute with the credit bureaus and have the information corrected.


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