What is a credit report?
Your credit report is a compilation of your financial interactions with any institution that reports to the credit bureaus, going back at least 7 years. It lists any organization that has loaned you money (like your bank), or that you've made payments to (like your cell phone company, the gas company, etc).
What's in my credit report?
Your credit report will include:
For more information on what your credit report is and what it contains, see your financial institution's website, or:
Why do I care?
Your credit report/score is your reputation. Potential employers, potential landlords, potential creditors all look at your credit report to determine your level of financial trustworthiness. Bad credit can keep you from being able to rent an apartment, get a job, a loan, or credit card.
What is my FICO score?
"FICO" stands for Fair Isaac and Co. This company originated the credit score, and your FICO score is the same thing as your credit score. Your FICO score is a number that sums up your credit-worthiness. Credit scores range from the 400's to the 800's. The higher your score, the better your credit-worthiness, and the more trustworthy you appear to potential creditors, employers, landlords, etc. Having a higher credit score can get you better interest rates on loans.
For example, let's say I have 3 credit cards that are all 180 days late being paid. My credit score would be low, possibly in the 500 range. If I've got perfect credit, all my bills have been paid on time, my debt to income ratio is good, I might have a credit score of 780.
In reality, credit scores are somewhat arbitrary. Each of your credit reports from each of the different credit bureaus will be different, and may vary by a wide range (i.e., 650 with Experian, but 680 with Equifax and 600 with Transunion).
Who produces my credit report?
Credit reports come from credit bureaus. The big three in this country are Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. Banks and other creditors report information about you to at least one of these three bureaus.
Okay, so my credit report is important. How do I get a copy?
According to federal law, you are entitled to a FREE copy of your credit report once a year, or any time you are turned down for credit based on a credit bureau's report to a creditor. To request a report, you can go online, call, or write a letter to any of the credit bureaus. Their addresses are below:
701 Experian Parkway
PO Box 2002
Allen, TX 75013
(866) 200-6020; or go to
2 Baldwin Place
PO Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
(800) 888-4213; or
PO Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
If you choose to write a letter, make sure to state in the letter that per the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you are requesting a free copy of your credit report.
You can also receive your free annual credit report by going to https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action
CAUTION: Some websites claiming to give you a free credit report will only provide it to you with the purchase of some service. While the services different companies offer may be beneficial in your situation, it's not required to purchase anything extra if all you want is your credit report. (For example, FreeCreditReport.com, the guys on TV in the pirate hats, requires enrollment in a paid service called Triple Advantage.)
If you want more than one report a year, and you have not been denied credit, you have to pay for your report. Each credit bureau charges differently for additional copies, and may charge extra for your FICO score independent of your credit report, even if the credit report was free.
I got a copy. Some of the information is wrong. Does it matter?
In a word, YES. The Fair Credit Reporting Act also requires credit bureaus to take reasonable measures to ensure that the information contained in your credit report is accurate.
Since companies that are determining whether to give you credit or not are looking at your report, if there are inaccuracies, they won't know and will just assume that everything is correct. You need to make sure that the accounts being reported as yours actually ARE yours; that your accounts have been reportedly accurately (i.e., you don't have accounts being reported as delinquent when they are actually paid up); and that you are the ONLY person listed on your credit report. Having extra people or accounts can be a sign that you've been a victim of identity theft (but more on that later).
If the credit bureaus are telling companies that are inquiring about you that you have more debt than you do, you may not qualify for additional credit.
For example, let's say you want to buy a car. When the lender you're trying to get financing through looks at your credit report, they will see how much you owe on other accounts. If they look at your income and what your credit report says you pay out each month, and determine that you can't afford to take on additional debt (your debt to income ratio is too high), they will deny you the loan. You don't get a car. Now let's say that some of those accounts that appear on your credit report don't belong to you. You don't really have to pay out as much as the report says you do. Your debt to income ratio is really fine. You still don't get the car, because the lender is obligated to take your credit report at face value.
How do I fix my things in my credit report when they are wrong?
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the credit bureaus are required by law to report your credit accurately. If you have accounts/names/social security numbers/addresses on your account that do not belong to you, you have a right to have them removed. The credit bureaus each have a process to fix mistakes on your report. When you get your credit report, it will come with instructions on how to fix mistakes.
The credit bureaus are only required to do what's reasonable to investigate and fix inaccuracies on your report. But you MUST go through their process to make those changes, even if the credit bureau will not fix the problem. If you come to that point, it's time to get a lawyer who practices consumer credit law.