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What Is a Credit Report – How to Get a Free Annual Credit Report

By Kira Botkin

credit report magnifying glassYou may have heard that you should check your smoke alarm batteries when you change your clocks to daylight savings time. So in the spirit of preventing a disaster, why not check your credit report as well?

Checking your credit report should be a regular item on your financial to-do list, since it can show you how others view your creditworthiness and alert you to potential credit report errors or identity theft. We’ll talk about why your credit report is important, when you should consider checking it, and how you can get your free credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com.

What Is a Credit Report?

Three different agencies collect information for your credit report: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. They itemize all of your past and present loans, such as auto loans, mortgages, and student loans, as well as any open lines of credit you have, like credit cards (even if you don’t carry a balance).

They also list information regarding accounts that have gone to collections as well as public records filings, such as a bankruptcy or foreclosure. Additionally, they list who has inquired about your credit over the past two years, such as a credit card company or other lender.

Each agency then combines this information into a comprehensive report and calculates your credit score. This single number, which varies slightly between companies, acts as an instant summary of your creditworthiness. It allows potential lenders to see how you’ve handled credit in the past and determine whether or not they should extend you credit and at what interest rate.

Reasons to Check Your Credit Report

If you pay your bills religiously and are careful with your personal information, you might not think you need to check your credit report. But you would be wrong. Ideally, your credit report will hold exactly what you expect. But too often, that’s not the case.

1. Catch Credit Report Errors

It’s important to make sure that no items are being reported incorrectly and that all debts and accounts actually belong to you. You could, for example, discover that you’re still an authorized user on Mom’s credit card, which was set up ten years ago and was never closed. While that might have helped your credit then, it could be hurting it now.

Moreover, there may be inaccuracies on your report, such as if a closed credit card is reported as open or if your credit card limit is shown as lower than it actually is. Credit report errors like these can negatively impact your credit score, but can be fixed for free. If you don’t periodically check your credit report, however, you won’t know if any errors exist.

2. Prevent Identity Theft and Fraud

In addition to possible errors, checking your credit report can alert you to potential fraud. You may not even know you’ve been the victim of identity theft until you pull your credit report and find something that shouldn’t be there. In fact, if you don’t check your credit report, you could find out about fraud when you start receiving collections phone calls about a debt that isn’t even yours.

Identity thieves take advantage of the fact that relatively few people keep an eye on their credit. For example, a credit card could be opened in your name by someone else who rings up a large balance but pays the monthly minimum so as not to alert you to the fraud. In this situation, the debt could literally exist for years without you being any the wiser.

Be aware that a great deal of identity theft is committed by friends, family, and acquaintances who have direct access to your personal documents. This type of theft usually goes on for a long period of time with extreme amounts of debt accrued.

Shredding sensitive documents and taking other preventative measures are certainly helpful, but it’s nearly impossible to be 100% protected. If you pull all your credit reports on a regular basis, you stand a good chance of catching errors or fraudulent activity early, at which point you can put a freeze on your credit so that further damage isn’t done.

identity theft social security

When to Get Your Credit Report

The most important time to pull your credit report is a few months before you apply for any new, large debt, such as a mortgage or car loan. This is so that if there are inaccuracies on your report or contradictions between the different bureaus’ reports, you’ll be able to fix problems before your lender sees them.

Another good time to request a credit report is if you have recently applied for a credit card, a loan, employment, or insurance, and have been denied based on the information within your credit report. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you are entitled to a free copy under these circumstances.

However, you can only get a report from the agency that provided it to the lender that rejected your application. You have 60 days after receiving your denial letter to request this report and the denial letter will usually give specific instructions on how to request it from that agency. You are also eligible for a free report if you are unemployed and looking for a job, if you’re on welfare, or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud or identity theft.

That said, regardless of your situation, you should pull your credit report at least once a year.

How to Get Free Credit Reports

The best place to get a truly free credit report is online at AnnualCreditReport.com. This is a service provided by the federal government. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), every person is legally authorized to obtain a free credit report once per year from each of the three credit reporting companies. Other websites may ask you to sign up for a “free trial” for a credit monitoring service in order to receive your report. While these services can be valuable, understand that it’s not necessary that you sign up for one to view your credit report.

credit reporting agenciesWhen you go through AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll be asked to choose your state, enter basic personal information, and then choose one of the three companies through which to pull your report. You can receive one report from each company every 12 months.

After you choose a company, you’ll be sent to their website to complete your request. You will need to provide information that helps to verify your identity, such as the name of a street you previously lived on or a company that held a specific account you had in the past. These questions are intended to keep others from illegally accessing your credit report.

Once you go through the process, you choose whether to view and print your credit report online or have it mailed to you. If you request a copy by mail, it can take up to three weeks to arrive. Remember to keep your credit report in a secure place, such as a locked file cabinet or safe, if you do decide to keep a copy on paper. If you store a copy on your hard drive, make sure your computer is password protected and that you have a solid security suite installed against hackers and viruses.

Final Word

You don’t want a nasty surprise when you apply for a loan on the perfect car or the home of your dreams. Nor do you want to find out that someone with the same name has been enjoying and deteriorating your good credit for years. So make sure you know what’s on your credit report and that everything on there is accurate. Even the smallest mistakes could turn into big problems down the road.

When was the last time you checked your credit report? Have you ever found errors or fraudulent accounts?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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