Credit Report Basics
Whether or not you are considering making a major financial move, it's a good idea to check your credit report. It is best to find out if you have a credit problem before you need credit! That way you can know about any problems and take care of them before they jump up and derail your plans.
If you've made mistakes in paying previous loans, made late payments, or had other problems, you may still be able to reduce the amount of damage they will do to your credit by explaining special circumstances to the potential lender, especially for major installment loans.
Free Credit Report
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), along with the 2003 amendment known as the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act or FACTA), gives you the rights to do the following:
Learn what your credit record contains.
Correct inaccurate or incomplete information.
Obtain a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies (CRAs)—Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
Under FACTA, consumers are able to access their credit report via mail, telephone, or through the government-authorized website, annualcreditreport.com.
The three credit bureaus are:
PO Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374
2 Baldwin Place
PO Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
1-800-888-4213 or 1-800-916-8800
PO Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013
When you request your credit report, you will need to provide your full name (including birth name), spouse's name, Social Security number, date of birth, and complete addresses for the past five years. You will also be asked security questions to prove that you are who you say you are to avoid identity theft issues.
An example of such a question could look like, "What is the account numbers for three current credit cards?"
It is important to note that with these free credit reports, you will not receive an actual score, often referred to as a credit score or a FICO (Fair Isaacs & Company) score. Through annualcreditreport.com, you can access your FICO score for a small nominal fee. Make sure your report is accurate before paying for your score.
Credit Report Outline
A credit report consists of four basic sections:
Identifying Information is just that—information to identify you. Look at it closely to make sure it is accurate. Other information might include your current and previous addresses, date of birth, telephone numbers, driver's license number, your employer, and your spouse's name.
Public Records: This includes information in public records, such as judgments, bankruptcies, and other court proceedings of a financial nature, including tax liens.
Credit History: Each account will include the name of the creditor and the account number. You may have more than one account from a creditor; if you move, the creditor will transfer your account to a new location and assign a new number. When you open an account, the kind of credit (installment, mortgage, car loan, or revolving, store credit card) is reported. It includes the following:
Name under which the account is listed (your name or names, if it is listed jointly with another person), total amount of the loan, credit limit, and the highest balance on the card
How much you owe and how well you've paid the account
Status of the account (open, inactive, closed, paid, etc.)
On Experian's credit report, your payment history is written in plain English with phrases such as "never pays late," "typically pays 30 days late," etc. "Charged off" means the creditor has given up.
Inquiries: The report provides a list of everyone who has asked to see your credit report. Inquiries are divided into two sections:
Hard inquiries are ones you initiated by filling out a credit application. The more inquiries of this type, the more potential there is for debt.
Soft inquiries are from companies that want to send out promotional information to a pre-qualified group or from current creditors monitoring your account.
Certain types of inquiries actually lower your credit score. Inquiries that can decrease your FICO score usually come from creditors that you have asked for new or more credit.
Correcting Billing Errors
The Fair Credit Billing Act requires creditors to correct errors promptly and without damage to your credit rating. The law defines a billing error as follows:
Something you didn't buy
Something that is not properly identified on your bill or is for a different amount
Something that you did not accept on delivery or that was not delivered
Bills not to your current address, if you told the creditor about an address change at least 20 days before the end of the billing period. The process takes time — creditors have 30 days to respond to the discrepancy.
When a charge is in dispute, then that dispute will show up on your report. Experienced lenders say it's common for reports to have errors. Some estimate that as many as 80% of all credit reports have some kind of misinformation. Any error that you find must be investigated by the credit bureau with the creditor who supplied the data.
The credit bureau will remove any errors from your credit report that a creditor admits are there. If you disagree with the findings, you can file a short statement (sample form included) in your report giving your side of the story. Future reports to creditors must include this statement or a summary of it.
Once you have written about a possible error, a creditor must not give information to other creditors or credit bureaus that would hurt your credit reputation until the matter is resolved. Until your complaint is answered and while the investigation is ongoing, the creditor may not take any action to collect the disputed amount.
In order to correct these errors, consumers can file credit report disputes via regular mail, telephone, or email. Using email is highly recommended because the process is faster and you have the option to track the status of your dispute.