No matter what time of year it is, it’s never too late to dust off your credit reports and learn exactly where you stand. Especially these days when the average boomer is swimming in debt and the long-term unemployed are relying on credit just to make ends meet. Worse still, a recent study found it isn’t uncommon for consumers to spot errors on their report, which can cost them a much-needed job or loan.
So what can you do to clean up your act? We asked Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s Director of Consumer Education, to weigh in.
1. Order a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus.
It might sound counterintuitive — shouldn’t your credit report be the same at all three major credit bureaus? — but there are differences, Detweiler points out. Order them all at once from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion for free once per year, especially if you’re getting acquainted with your credit for the first time. “Credit reporting agencies don’t share information with each other,” which means that all three may not report the same data, she says. Because of this, you’ll want to catch a mistake as soon as possible.
2. Know the signs of identity theft.
Perhaps the biggest thing consumers overlook when reviewing their score are the big red flags that point to identity theft. Be wary of any accounts and/or inquiries on your credit report that you cannot recall or explain, especially if it’s a store credit card or the account is delinquent — a sure sign the crook intends to stick you with the bill. Consumers should examine their address and other information listed in the report’s header since these types of errors could signal mistaken identity. Beyond the credit report, other signs of fraud might include missing bills (a tip-off someone may have redirected your mail), being denied credit and/or receiving unfavorable terms on new cards.
3. Dispute errors the smart way.
One of the biggest missteps consumers can make when disputing an error is going through the wrong party. Instead, they should follow our step-by-step guide, which includes ordering recent copies of their report (less than 60 days old) and disputing the error with the credit reporting agency (or agencies) who display the error, either online or by mail. Definitely call them out if it’s something you can prove false with documentation and if the information doesn’t belong to you, says Detweiler. And whatever you do, don’t let it slip by unnoticed.
4. Don’t obsess over tiny fluctuations in your credit score.
Instead, pay attention to what counts — which areas are strong and which need some work. “Figure out what you can do to improve on whatever is dragging down your scores,” Detweiler says. Our Free Credit Report Card will give you a grade on how you’re doing on each of the five major areas that credit scoring models take into account when creating your score.
“If it’s debt, take a look at how you can prioritize your payments to pay off the debts that have the greatest impact on your scores more quickly,” Detweiler says. “If it’s your payment history, you may not be able to change the past, but you can try to pay everything on time from here on out.” Fortunately, most black marks will drop off your score after seven years, adds Barry Paperno, Credit.com’s credit scoring expert.
5. Factor in medical debt.
“I wish more people understood how much damage an unpaid medical bill can do to their credit ratings,” Detweiler says. “Letting a bill slip through the cracks or assuming that insurance will take care of it is very dangerous.” Just how dangerous is it? Even a single unpaid copay for $15 can cause your score to plummet, she wrote recently. Even if you’re making payments on the debt it can be sent to collections, and you won’t always be notified when that happens. Start off by getting an itemized medical bill from your provider that lists all your charges one-by-one, then check to make sure all the fees are correct. From there, you should verify whether your insurance has actually kicked in, and also request an Enrollment of Benefits form from your insurer to see how much they plan to pay for the bill versus how much you personally owe.