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How to Get the Most Out of Free Credit Reports

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You’ve heard the advice countless times: check your free credit reports each year. You may have also heard the advice commonly suggested by financial advisers to stagger your requests for these reports so that you get one every four months; for example, request your free report from Equifax the first month, Experian four months later, and TransUnion four months after that. The next year, you can start it all over again.

However, I disagree with this approach, and here are the three reasons why:

You May Miss Major Mistakes on Your Credit Reports.

The three credit reporting agencies don’t share information with each other. Hopefully the information they each report is accurate, and similar on each report. But you simply don’t know if that’s the case until you check all three reports. A mistake or negative item can show up on your report with any of the agencies. But if you haven’t checked the report that contains the mistake, you won’t know there is an issue.

It Can Give You a False Sense of Security.

This suggestion is given as a way to keep tabs on your credit reports throughout the year. But again, in reality, you are only checking one report once a year that way. Sure it’s better than not checking at all – and we do encourage taking advantage of this opportunity to see your reports at no charge. But you must also understand what you are getting when you check your reports this way. You’re getting the opportunity to see your reports, not the opportunity to monitor them.

It’s Difficult to Measure Your Progress.

If you are one of the millions of consumers with seriously negative information on your reports such as collection accounts, bankruptcy, repossession, foreclosure, for example, then your goal is likely to rebuild your credit, and it’s hard to see how you’re doing when you only see each report once a year.

Instead of staggering your requests for your free credit reports, I suggest you get all three reports at the same time, at least the first time that you order them. If you don’t uncover any problems and are satisfied with the information in your reports, you can stagger your requests the following year if you choose.  Be sure to also take advantages of opportunities to get additional free copies of your credit reports, if you are unemployed, for example, or if your state’s law entitles you to extra copies.

In addition, a tool like Credit.com’s Free Credit Report Card can be used to monitor changes to your score each month. If your score drops, or you spot a new problem, you can dig deeper.

Finally, there are some circumstances where it makes sense to spring for a credit monitoring service so you can keep more frequent tabs on the details in your reports. Examples include if you are splitting up with a spouse or partner with whom you commingled finances, if you have been an identity theft victim, or if you are actively trying to monitor your credit reports and scores in order to achieve specific financial goal such as buying a home.

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