Credit 101

What’s Really in Your Credit Report?

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free credit scoreYou probably have it in your head that your credit report is “good” or “bad.” But with credit reports, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The credit report itself is just a compilation of facts about your financial habits and it is, in fact, judgment-free.

It’s up to lenders, insurance companies or others that review your credit reports to evaluate that information, and they usually do that with the help of credit scores. Of course the information used to calculate your credit score is found in your credit report. So you don’t really want to see one without the other! (It just so happens you can do all of this—get an overview and explanation of your credit report and see your credit scores—using’s Credit Report Card. It’s absolutely free!)

There’s a popular misconception that your credit report is a computer file sitting at a credit reporting agency being periodically updated. But it doesn’t quite work that way.  When someone requests your report, the credit reporting agency’s computers go to work, compiling information that matches your identifying information into a report that can be scored or provided to the lender, insurance agency or other company that purchased it.

Experian has described it this way: You may have all the ingredients you need in your kitchen to make a particular dish, but until you put those ingredients together, the dish doesn’t exist.

There are three main companies that compile and sell credit reports nationwide: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. They don’t share information with each other, and the data each one collects and reports may be different as a result. That’s why it’s a good idea to review your reports with each of these agencies. You can get them once a year at and you may be entitled to extra free copies under federal law. (Our Credit Report Card and the accompanying scores are based on your credit report data and essentially translates the information in the raw credit file into something more user friendly.) And if you’re planning on trying to build better credit, you might consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service that provides additional features.

What’s In Your Credit Report?

There are four main categories of information in your credit report: personal information, account information, public record information and inquiries.

Personal information includes the items used to help identify accounts that are yours when your report is compiled:

  • Your current and former names (if you’ve married or divorced and changed your name, for example)
  • Your Social Security number
  • Current and former addresses and variations
  • Employment information

What to look for here: Don’t be surprised if you see out-of-date employment information. Lenders don’t usually rely on that data. But do investigate if you see addresses that are clearly wrong – in another state, for example – or variations of your name you don’t recognize. They could mean your credit information is getting mixed up with that of someone else, or they could be a sign of identity theft.

Account information (a.k.a. “tradelines”): This is the meat of your credit report and usually is the most detailed and longest section of your credit report. It may include:

  • Credit cards, department store cards, gas company cards
  • Vehicle loans or leases; RV and boat loans
  • Mortgages and home equity loans
  • Consumer finance company accounts
  • Credit union credit cards or loans

Each individual account will list details such as:

  • Lender name and account number
  • Date the account was opened and closed (if applicable)
  • Original and current balance
  • Monthly payment amount
  • Payment history
  • Current status (paid as agreed, 30 days late, etc.)

What to look for here: Remember when we said that credit reports are compiled when requested? That means that your credit report includes the latest information reported by your lenders. If your lender hasn’t reported that you paid your balance off yet, for example, the last balance reported will show up here. It may take up to 30 days for your current balance to be reported. (And by then, it may have changed again!)

Also remember that some accounts, like medical bills, are only likely to show up on your credit reports if they have been turned over to collections. And since reporting accounts is voluntary, you may not see all of your loans on your report.

Public Record Information includes items that are part of the public record, which means they have been recorded with a court. This section can also contain collection accounts, even though those are not part of the public record. What you’ll find here:

  • Civil judgments (criminal information is not reported on standard consumer reports)
  • Bankruptcies
  • Federal, state and county property and tax liens
  • Collection accounts

What to look for here: Make sure dates and balances are reported correctly. Dates are especially important because they determine when these items will come off your credit reports. And while paying a collection account may be the right thing to do, and may help you avoid being sued for a debt, it won’t likely boost your credit scores.

Inquiries note when someone has obtained your credit information. There is nothing that indicates whether you were approved or rejected for credit at that time. Some inquiries can affect your credit scores, but not all do. Soft inquiries usually aren’t seen by anyone else but you, and they usually won’t affect your credit scores. These include:

  • Consumer inquiries, which indicate that you’ve requested your own credit information.
  • Promotional inquiries, usually for prescreened credit cards. Tip: You can remove your name from these marketing lists by calling 1-888-5OPT-OUT.
  • Account review inquiries created when your current lenders request your credit information.
  • Employment or insurance-related inquiries

Mortgage, auto and student loan inquiries within a recent time period (usually 30 or 45 days, depending on which scoring model is used) are ignored. And going back in time, inquiries of these types that occur in a short period of time are usually grouped together.

What to look for here: Look into inquiries from companies whose names you don’t recognize. While it’s possible that they could be from companies you’ve done business with (if they report under a different company name), they could also indicate fraud.

Next Steps

Once you’ve reviewed your credit report carefully, your next steps will be to:

  1. Dispute mistakes and
  2. Get your credit score to understand how lenders may view the information in your reports.

For more Credit 101, check out these links:

Image:, via Flickr

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  • Bill Thompson

    Recently when I applied for my credit report I found that only information I already knew was available. To get a “full” disclosure regarding my credit and my credit score I was required to pay a fee to obtain this information. Is this what free is all about? This was requested through Experian. I already know that I pay my debts, have no major outstanding loans or mortgages and I pay any credit card balances in full when I am billed. This seems to be a cheap method of doing business simply to get a payment for “full” disclosure. Thanks Experian but no thanks!

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Bill – Not sure where you ordered your report but you can get a truly free copy of your report from each of the bureaus at Once you check your reports to make sure all the information is correct then our free Credit Report Card will help you make sense of that information. Hope that helps!

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    • Gerri Detweiler

      Not sure I understand the question…? Can we assist?

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  • catherine krofick

    This information is informative and easy to understand. Thank you.

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  • Barry Paperno

    Hi Walter,
    Typically a pension or 401(k) loan doesn’t require a credit check, so I’m a bit surprised you’re being told that your credit needs to get better before you can qualify. However, if that’s the case, did they mention specifically what part of your credit is holding you back, i.e. high debt, late payment, etc?


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  • Don B

    I did use the free request thru Experian. I do not see a “score”. What is the point of getting report without the score?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      The report is important because that’s the data that will be used to calculate scores. You’ll want to make sure it’s correct. But then once you get your report from Experian, you can request our free Credit Report Card to see your score and understand what the information on your report means. Hope that helps!

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Don – Not sure I understand the question. Are you saying you went to Experian and got your credit report? If so, that’s important because if the information on your report is wrong then your score won’t be accurate. So you want to make sure it’s correct. But while credit reporting agencies are required to give consumers one free copy of their credit report each year it doesn’t require them to give a free credit score. (Lenders are required to give you a free copy if your credit score if it was used to turn you down or charge you more for credit.)

      If you want a free credit score, we offer one at Our Credit Report Card is truly free – no credit card number requested – and you can get an updated score every month. I hope that helps!

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  • David Oliver / NM

    Screw the Banks and their shills, the Credit Bureaus. Carpetbagging thieves !!!

  • Rose

    My husband died last year. Several of his credit cards have me listed as an authorized user. Can I get these accounts removed from my report (they are all current, but show me with too many open accounts. Also, if I quit paying accounts only in his name, will that affect my credit report and score?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Rose –

      Our condolences for your loss. There are two issues you are dealing with here. The first is the credit card balances your husband left and whether you are responsible for them. I suggest you sort that answer out first. You’ll learn more in this article: Collecting Debt From Those Who Have Died: FTC Weighs In. the second issue is removing yourself as authorized user. Once the card issuers have been notified of your husband’s death, the accounts should be closed. I don’t know the specific procedure for getting them off your credit reports, but I suspect that once they have closed the accounts you can dispute them with the credit reporting agencies and get them removed. With a copy of the death certificate showing the date of death, I suspect you should bve able to get them removed unless the credit card companies somehow insist you are a joint accountholder and not an authorized user. I would like to know what happens when you dispute them.

  • domingo martinez

    Hi I have been working on my credit for a couple of years. I have done all i know to improve my report and credit score, I have a chase credit card that i have to use for emergencies, and a secured american express card from usaa. I didn’t know that i had to pay the cards in full every month to maintain a better score. My balances are high but i pay much more than the minimum and never late. On the am express my limit is $300 and i pay at least $150 or more a month. But my credit takes a negative hit for having too high a balance , please help!

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Domingo –

      I suggest you stop using the card and just work on paying down the balance. When you have the balance paid off, then use it just once a month for something small – like a tank of gas or lunch, for example. Then pay it off in full. You don’t have to pay your balance in full to have good credit, but you should try to keep it at about 10 – 20% or so of the limit and on a card with a $300 limit that’s only $30 – $40.

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  • Fiona Gray

    I firmly believe that one of the best skills we can teach our children is to use a credit card for only critical purchases…and cash for fun. When you pay with cash, it just feels real. Think about being at a restaurant, for example. The card is so easy. But laying out all those bills…you realize more how much you are giving up.

  • ? Jacquelyn Ferguson Lewis

    I have never gotten my credit report, but I would like to. I know it is poor because my ex-husband took me to the cleaners in Colorado (my fault for being stupid) and my lawyer left me. Also, I was barred from selling my house ($300,000. down the drain) by my ex’s lawyer and the court. I was told I could represent myself (everytime I tried to contact the court I was told I didn’t use proper procedure and I moved back to Texas where no lawyer could help me.) I couldn’t even declare bankruptcy because I did not have $l,500. However, I was in bad shape mentally and could not deal. I was told, however, that the statute of limitations is 7 years and that will be in 2014 in April if it starts when you stop paying. Can you help me find out my credit report and if it is true that I will no longer be punished after next year? I paid over $300,000 and left probably $11,000 unpaid. I am now 78 and just wish to be left alone, but I would like to have one credit card. I had one until last year that I always paid completely, but it was purchased by Bank of America and they promptly cancelled me even though I had never had a problem in over 14 years. Sorry if this is disconnected and hard to follow. I have never been enlightened about my problems, so I don’t know what is necessary in this comment. I would apprec iate any help you may offer. Thank you.

    • Gerri Detweiler


      You can request your credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion at If you don’t want to order them online you can call 1-877-322-8228 to order by phone and they will be mailed to you. Unfortunately that’s not something we can do for you; but you shouldn’t find it too difficult.

      As for the length of time that information can stay on your credit reports, we wrote about that here: How Long Does Negative Info Stay on My Credit Report?

  • Dennis Abu

    I have lived in the US for two years with no credit report or score. I have tried to established lines of credit but turned down several times. What can I do to established a credit data?

  • James Yarbrough

    I have an account with I got my first report card in Feb. 2013. I requested and received my second report card today (Apr 14, 2013). I haven’t used additional credit since Feb, I have made payments on time on the 2 open accounts I have (1 car loan and 1 visa credit card). I haven’t done any inquiries since Feb. How can I find out why my experian credit score dropped 46 points, my fico dropped 21 points, and vantage dropped 42 points from 2-2013 to 4-2013? I have not requested a complete credit report from you but I would like to have it. How do I go about getting a complete credit report without signing up for a 7 day free trial?

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  • Julie M

    My husband and I put 3 of our maxed out credit cards to a debt consolidation company. Will that hurt our excellent credit scores that we have had for years?

  • Royena A

    I was a co-signer for my son for a Young Adult Visa card when he was a freshman in college. His credit limit was at $500.00 then if I needed to increase or decrease it I contact the credit card company and submit it in writing showing how my mortgage payment is , etc. and how much I wanted it to be. During his 4 years the credit limit was increased to $2,000.00. Now that he finished college and his working with a fixed income, I’d like him to get his own credit card based on his own credit worthiness. He got approved easily for $10,000.00. His credit score was 759. Should I close the very first credit card he ever had or I just have Cardmember Service bring down the credit limit to $500.00. What is the best thing to do without hurting his credit score? Thank you.

  • Oscar Katz

    I came to Calif with $100.00 in my pocket. worked fo $40.00/week…. learned how to build…started off …. became a quality Owner-Builder…. Now What?????? What happens when I as an :
    Owner Builder Developer….Large Client …. Excellent Credit-with many Lenders, not one flaw, not one late payment, not one late charge, not one default, not one problem from approx 1958 through approx 1989 +/-….then disaster….My Main Bank – Union Bank (Beverly Hills Branch), was taken over by RTC., I had to finish new construction project on a 5 piece Recourse Construction Loan of approx $23,800,000…. (My 5 land sites on 3rs St in Santa Monica were all paid for – free and clear when I took out the construction Loan. The Market went South…. The RTC auctioned off the completed 79 Condo Units, early 1990s. I was responsible for all out of pocket “$ differences…. destroyed my credit. This is now 5/9/2013). Now What ????? – if I want to go back in, purchase properties to ReHab, Re-Sell. Union Bank became Union Bank of Calif, and is now again operating as Union Bank. How do I get connected up again with Investors, with Banks ?
    Sounds like a Sad-Saks Tale…. but all true


      The mortgage debacle in 2008 hurt millions of consumers and businesses alike so you’re not alone. Recovery has been slow going but four years out and things are much more optimistic. Have you tried reaching back out to Union Bank?

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