Credit Reports: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Your credit report is a record of your credit accounts and payment history. It includes your basic biographical information, as well as information on how many credit accounts you have and if you have been making payments on time. It may also include your bankruptcy and rental history.

Your credit report is used by lenders to determine the interest rate you’ll pay for a loan. But it may also be used by employers, landlords, and insurance companies to make decisions about you. Negative information on your credit report can impact whether you get hired for a job, how much you’ll pay for auto and homeowners insurance, and your ability to rent an apartment. Credit reports are sometimes used as a proxy for race and income status, and can often be an obstacle for racial minorities and those with low income when applying for loans, jobs, and insurance.

Each of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, maintains a credit report on you. There are slight differences in how each report may look, but in general, each of these reports should show the same information. There are smaller, more specialized credit bureaus that also have credit reports but most lenders review reports from these three bureaus.

You have the legal right to access your credit reports for free once per year through annualcreditreport.com. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the major credit bureaus have agreed to make credit reports available for free once per week. You can also request your credit reports directly from the three credit bureaus, though this may cost money.

Once you have accessed your report at annualcreditreport.com, read it carefully. The first thing you want to check is your personal information. Is your name correct? Your address? Anything on there you don’t recognize? That could be an error. Next, look for any accounts or debts. Are these accounts yours? Is the information reported about them - such as date paid, accurate? Any accounts you don’t recognize? Any payments missing or recorded late when you know you’ve made them on time? Next look for things like bankruptcies, tax liens, or court judgments. Are these yours? Are they reported accurately? For example, if you have paid a tax lien, it should be noted in the report.

Once you get your credit report, check it carefully to make sure all of the information is correct. If you find errors, you should file a dispute with the appropriate credit bureau. You can find a sample complaint letter here. Keep copies of everything you send to the CRAs and that they send you. And be sure to only send copies. Hold onto your original documents. If you see accounts you don’t recognize, you may be a victim of identity theft. Visit https://www.identitytheft.gov/ to get a step-by-step recovery plan.

A credit score is a number used to quickly determine your creditworthiness. Your credit scores are formulated by the two major credit scoring companies: FICO and Vantage and can range from 300-850. The higher your score is, the more creditworthy you are considered. Credit scores are calculated based on information in your credit report, which is one reason why having an accurate credit report is important.

You can improve your credit score by making your loan payments on time, reducing your use of credit, and making sure your credit report is accurate. Watch out for scammers purporting to help you “fix” your credit or raise your credit score. Time and paying down debts are the surest fixes, but these may be out of reach for many of us due to the pandemic. Scammers know our desperation and prey on it. Stay strong, and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.