How to Read Your Credit Report
Making it easy to understand
August 26, 2013 by Mark Dye
Getting a copy of your credit report each year is an essential part of managing your money effectively. Reading that report, on the other hand, can be a frustrating and confusing experience—unless you know what you’re looking at.
So grab copies of your credit report at www.AnnualCreditReport.com—the one and only site legally able to give you free copies from all three bureaus—and follow along to find out what to check, where most errors are found, and more about your credit report.
(Note that we’re using a sample report from Experian. While each bureau’s report looks different, the basic information each contains will be similar—just perhaps in different places within the report. For the full PDF, click here.)
Name, rank, and Social Security Number
We’ll start from the top, where all reports should have your name, report number, and the date you received it:
TransUnion also lists your address and the most current employment information at the top. Make sure it’s correct—from my experience, there’s about a 50% chance something is wrong in this area. (It took one bureau a while to update my employer section after I started here at Pioneer. And by “a while” I mean “four years.”)
Right after they list who you are, they move on to listing what you’re doing wrong, or what Experian coyly refers to as “potentially” negative items. (Read: they’re negative).
This section will include public records (e.g. bankruptcy, lawsuits, garnishments, etc.), followed by standard credit items (e.g. past-due credit card accounts, loan charge-offs, etc.). The only good thing that could be in this section is a fraud alert if you’ve been the victim of identity theft and have notified the bureaus.
As much as might want to see this all disappear, there are rules on how long it stays on your report. Per federal law:
A consumer reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and bankruptcy information for 10 years... There is no time limit on reporting information about criminal convictions; information reported in response to your application for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year; and information reported because you’ve applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance [ed. note: neither of these last two is negative]. Information about a lawsuit or an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is longer.
“Accurate” is the key part. If it’s not, report it immediately. (See info at bottom of this post.) There’s no reason to be punished for anything you didn’t do.
This is where, hopefully, all of your credit information resides.
Each entry in this section is called a “trade line,” and all of your open, and closed-but-in-good-standing, accounts should be listed. Each will list payment history, account status, whether or not you were late, maximum available credit on the account, when it was opened and closed…every last bit of info on that account should be on there.
Once again, check to see if everything is correct. Also note that an account may be listed here even though you’ve made a few late payments in the past. This is because if you’re caught up and paid, you’re considered “current” on your account and in good standing. Those late payments, however, will show up (usually as red boxes or sections) and will affect your credit score.
Here is listed all of the “hits” on your report. This means that any time you apply for credit—even if you just shopped around and never got the loan—or checked on car insurance, or had a job-based background check, it will show up in this section.
But not all inquires are created equal. There are two main types, and each affects your report differently.
- Hard inquiry—Experian calls these “Requests Viewed By Others”, while TransUnion calls them “Regular Inquiries” and Equifax just calls them “Inquiries.” These are listed every time someone obtained your credit report in order to gauge your credit worthiness. They stay on your record for a set amount of time depending on the type. This does affect your credit score, but not by all that much any more.
- Soft inquiry—Experian calls these “Requests Viewed Only By You,” while TransUnion calls them “Account Review Inquiries” and Equifax still just calls them “Inquiries” (the organization doesn’t break them down into types). These are “casual” reviews of your report and will not affect your credit score.
The information in this section can be helpful if you need to dispute an inquiry, as you can usually get a phone number and address to contact. While it is up to the companies to maintain accurate credit files for their customers, it is up to you to assure the report is accurate.
Next up for Experian is personal information (this could be located at beginning of report, too.)
I’m not a betting man, but I’d put it at 90% that your report will have something wrong in this area. (Mine has addresses of relatives who I haven’t seen in years, as well as some locations listed on there two and three times.)
So why is it wrong so often? Because they only update the address and employment files on the reports when you apply for credit with a company that has a CSC number. This applies to most auto, mortgage, and retail lenders, but does not include them all. Often, address and employment information remains stale if you do not update it yourself, or if you don’t often open up new lines of credit.
After you get through all of the stuff about you, there will be a section about your rights under the law. This includes giving you a chance to “opt out” of all those credit offers by calling 1-888-5OPTOUT (1 888 567 8688). This will reduce the number of soft inquires on your account and the amount of junk mail you receive.
Some reports, such as Equifax, list a credit score (also called Beacon or FICO score, depending on which system they use). Note that you will have a different credit score from each bureau, as they each use slightly different models. So one might have you at, say, a 680, while another lists you as 700. The only real thing to note is that the higher the score, the better. (And if you need to repair your credit, check out our Credit Repair Kit.)
There you have it—the six key areas to check on your report and what they mean. If you need to dispute any of it, contact the relevant bureau using the information below. After all, it’s up to you to make sure the information is correct.
You’ll need the following information to obtain your credit report:
Mail: Exquifax Credit Information Services
PO Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374
Mail: Experian National Consumer Assistance Center
PO Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013
Mail: TransUnion LLC Consumer Disclosure Center
PO Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022
- Full name, including any maiden names
- Spouse's name (if married)
- Complete current address/phone number
- Previous addresses for last five years
- Date of birth
- Social security number
- Current employer information