Here’s the quick and dirty on credit reports: You have more than one, and you’re entitled to see them. You can get a free annual credit report from each of the big three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) through AnnualCreditReport.com. They’re pretty easy to obtain, it doesn’t hurt your credit to ask for them and, again, they’re free, so go ahead, take a look.
Of course, looking at a credit report is one thing — understanding it is another. (Here’s a cheat sheet on how to read your credit reports.) One of the biggest reasons to review your credit reports is to watch out for errors, because an inaccurate credit report can hurt your credit scores and, in turn, cost you a lot of money. Here are some tips for finding errors on your credit reports.
1. Compare Your Reports
By getting your credit reports every year, you have the opportunity to see how your credit history changes over time. It helps to compare reports from the same bureau (for example, compare your 2014 TransUnion report to the TransUnion report you pulled in 2015), because your reports may vary significantly, depending on the company that generated them.
You can use these histories to spot errors: For example, does a new account appear on your most recent report, even though you didn’t open one in the last year?
Comparing reports from different bureaus can be helpful, too, but, keep in mind, they’re not going to be exactly the same, even if they’re all accurate. The reports are designed differently, not all information is reported to all the bureaus and information changes constantly. Don’t freak out if the balance on the same account is different between two bureaus: It could just be that one has more current information.
Still, if one bureau notes a late payment on an account while another bureau has with no late payments, that’s a reason to double check your account history. And if you paid off a collections account, but only one credit bureau marks it as such, you may want to investigate that, too.
2. Check Your Personal Information
Reports from various credit bureaus will look different, but they often have a lot of the same information and will be organized into similar sections. There should be a section of personal information, including things like your name, address, employer, Social Security number and so on. All your reports may not have the same information, but you want to look at all of them for information that you don’t recognize. If you see an address where you never lived, that could be a sign your account information is mixed with someone else’s — or a sign that someone stole your identity. Incorrect personal information could be an early sign that other things in your report could be wrong.
3. Read the Whole Thing
Yes, this is an incredibly boring tip, but thoroughly reading your credit report is the best way to spot a problem. If you rush through reviewing your reports, you could overlook an error that’s unnecessarily dragging down your credit score, which could be the difference in getting a mortgage or an affordable car loan.
Pay close attention to negative information — there should be a whole section on this data, sometimes called adverse accounts, so it’s easy to find — and if anything seems off, compare it with your account records. The credit report should have a key to help you spot notes about late payments, as well. Finally, read the names of the accounts, because if you don’t recognize the name of the creditor, the account may not belong on your credit report.
In between those free annual reports, you can get a free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com to keep an eye on your credit. If you ever find inaccurate information on your credit reports, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus — here’s a quick guide on how to dispute an error.
More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:
- What’s a Good Credit Score?
- How to Get Your Free Annual Credit Report
- How Do I Dispute an Error on My Credit Report?