You may have an idea what a credit report is – but do you really know? It’s very common for consumers to confuse credit reports with credit scores. Even though the two are related (and both are very important), they are two different things.
Credit reports are compiled by the three major credit reporting agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If you’ve had credit in the past, you probably have a credit report. (These reports are often called “credit files” or “credit histories” as well.)
Credit reports include key identifying information such as your name, current and former addresses, your employer (if it’s available), credit card and loan payments, inquiries, collection records and public records such as bankruptcy filings and tax liens. Each account listed will show your payment history along with other account details like your credit limit, when the account was established, the type of account (installment, revolving,), etc.
Here are seven important facts about credit reports:
1. They don’t “judge” your credit. These reports are simply a compilation of the facts that credit reporting agencies have collected about you. It’s up to the lender to decide what’s “good” or “bad,” which is why they often use credit scores as well. .
2. They can change often. Credit reports are for the most part compiled when they are requested. The credit reporting agency will search its database of information and compile the report based on the latest available data.
3. The three major CRAs are private, for-profit companies and they don’t share information with each other. That means there can be a mistake on one report but not another.
4. The information in your report is used to calculate credit scores. If the data is wrong, the score may not accurately reflect your creditworthiness.
5. You are entitled to one free annual credit report from each national CRA. In some states, and in some circumstances, you may be able to get additional free copies.
6. Lenders aren’t required by law to report information to credit reports. Some companies, such as utility companies and cell phone providers, typically do not report.
7. You have the right to dispute mistakes on your reports under a federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If you ask for an investigation, the CRA or creditor who receives your dispute must investigate and respond within 30 days in most cases.
Who sees your credit reports?
The list of organizations who can view your credit report is a limited one. It includes:
Certain government agencies
Where’s My Credit Score?
You won’t receive a free credit score when you get your free annual credit report. However, there are other sources that will give you a truly free credit score, such as Credit.com. The credit score takes information from the report and evaluates it to predict whether you are a good credit risk or not. A high score means you’re a good candidate to pay back a loan on time. A low score means you have a history of not doing such a great job of paying back your debts, or you have a limited track record with credit, and are therefore more risky.
You can get your free credit score updated monthly, along with a personalized action plan for your credit at Credit.com.
Your credit report is essentially your financial resume. It’s up to you to make sure it is accurate, and to maintain positive references. Your financial future may well depend on it.
Once you have them, the fun begins. You get to read and try to understand your credit reports. It may seem daunting at first; after all, most reports consist of pages and pages of information. But as that saying about how to eat an elephant goes, you just tackle it one bite (or bit) at a time.
Following are the main things you will want to review.
When reviewing this section, which contains information such as your name (and variations), current and previous addresses, etc., your main goal should be to make sure your personal information is correct and up to date. Slight variations of an old address or minor misspellings shouldn’t be much of an issue. But if there is an address listed and you have never lived there, or your reports list a version of your name you have never used, you will want to ask the credit reporting agency to investigate. It could mean that your information is mixed up with someone else’s or that someone has tried to use your information fraudulently.
In this section you will see information about credit accounts you currently have, as well as some or all of your older accounts. It may take you a moment to understand everything listed here, but be patient with yourself as you figure it out. You should see the following details about each account (when relevant):
Name of creditor
Type of account (installment, revolving, open)
Ownership — individual, joint account or authorized user
Highest balance and/or credit limit
Payment status (current or delinquent?)
Past payment history month-by-month
Your main goal here is to make sure information is accurate. It’s a lot to digest, particularly the first time you look through it. Highlight anything you aren’t sure about, so you can come back to it after you have reviewed your entire report.
Keep in mind that some things you think may be wrong may not be. For example, your balance will typically be reported as of the statement date, which means the account could show a balance even if you pay it off in full. Or an account may still appear on your credit report even though you closed it years ago.
If you do find mistakes, however, you will want to dispute them with the credit reporting agency.
Here you’ll find information about any companies that have reviewed your credit reports and/or obtained a credit score in the past two years. It’s natural to be concerned about the fact that too many inquiries may hurt your credit scores, but for most people the majority of inquiries won’t affect their scores. That’s because most of them will be “soft inquiries,” or inquiries that are ignored when credit scores are calculated. Soft inquiries include those generated for promotional or pre-approved credit offers, or “account review” inquiries generated when your current lenders review your credit.
Public Record Information
In this part of your credit report you’ll find bankruptcies, judgments, tax liens and/or collection accounts. One of the most important things to check here is that the dates listed are correct since they may directly affect how long these items will affect your credit. Collection accounts can be reported seven years plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor; bankruptcies may be reported for 10 years from the filing date (seven years in the case of Chapter 13); paid judgments may appear for seven years from the date the judgment was entered by the court; and paid tax liens may be reported for seven years from the date they were entered.
Who Is That?
One common source of confusion is the names of companies found in the accounts and/or inquiries sections. This happens because the name of the business checking or reporting credit may be different from the name of the business you think you’re dealing with. (Your airline rewards credit card, for example, isn’t likely to be listed under the airline’s name; it will appear under the issuer’s name.)
Still, if you don’t recognize the name of a company listed on your credit reports, it’s worth investigating. After all, inquiries or accounts with companies you don’t recognize can be an early indication of identity theft. Full contact information for each company should be listed on your credit report so that you can contact them directly. If not, ask the CRA for that information.
Help! I Still Don’t Understand My Report
If, after carefully reviewing your credit report, you still don’t understand all the information it contains, your first step should be to contact the credit reporting agency that supplied it. You should find a report number listed at the top of your credit report. You will want to use that when you contact the CRA as it will make things easier and faster. Contact the CRA using the phone number or address supplied on your report. In addition, you should find an address and toll-free number for the agency on your report. By law, they must provide trained personnel who can help you understand the information in your report.
What Does It Mean?
One thing your credit report won’t tell you is whether your credit is “good” or “bad.” That’s a judgment call on the lender’s part, and chances are they use credit scores to help make that decision. You can get your free credit score using a service like Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card. In addition to your score, you will also get a breakdown of the main factors affecting your credit scores.
You 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! (You can get your credit reports free once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com and get a credit scores using Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card).
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 your free credit reports annually and you may be entitled to extra free copies under federal law.
(Our free 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
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
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)
Federal, state and county property and tax liens
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 inquirieswithin 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.
Once you’ve reviewed your credit report carefully, your next steps will be to:
Dispute mistakes and
Get your credit score to understand how lenders may view the information in your reports.
Following are questions we frequently hear about credit reports and credit scores. In order to find out which of these problems may affect your credit, we recommend you get your free credit reports at least once a year, as well as monitor your credit score for free at Credit.com. You will get a complete explanation of the factors affecting your score, as well as an action plan for better credit.
1. How long does negative information stay on your credit reports? I’ve heard “seven years.”
Positive or neutral information can stay on your credit reports indefinitely, though in practice some credit reporting agencies will remove accounts that are older. Experian, for example, no longer reports accounts that are more than ten years old if the account is closed and there is no activity on it.
Accounts such as credit cards and mortgages can stay on a credit report for many years if they are open and active.
With negative information, however, federal law limits how long that information may be reported:
Chapter 7 Bankruptcies – These will stay on your credit reports for up to 10 years from the filing date. Interestingly, the accounts that are included in this type of bankruptcy will
have been removed from your credit reports years before the actual record of filing chapter 7 is removed.
Unpaid Tax Liens – These will stay on your credit report indefinitely. Yes, indefinitely. Once paid, the will remain on your credit reports for seven years from the date they were filed, not the date you pay them off. It is possible to get unpaid tax liens removed from your credit before the tax debt is satisfied if you qualify for the IRS Fresh Start program.
Defaulted Student Loans – The 7 year rule does not apply to defaulted student loans that are government issued or guaranteed. These items can also stay on your credit report indefinitely.
Collection Accounts – These accounts may be reported for seven years plus 180 days from the date you first fell behind with the original creditor, leading up to when the account was charged off and placed for collection. After that time period elapses, they may no longer be reported, even if they remain unpaid or have been sold to a new collection agency.
So how can you be sure that these items will be removed when the time has come?
Each of the credit bureaus hard codes their credit reporting systems to look for the “purge from” dates. As these dates hit their 7 or 10 year anniversary they will no longer be reported. Unless you believe that an account is being reported past those time limits, there is no need to remind the credit bureaus that an item is to be removed. It is done automatically. Still, it’s a good idea to check your free credit report each year to make sure that is the case.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT COLLECTIONS: Collection agencies will often report debts to the credit bureaus in an attempt to collect from the consumer. This is perfectly legal as defined by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The issue here is that, intentionally or not, collection agencies sometimes report to the credit bureaus using a newer “purge from” date despite the fact that this is not allowed under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The result of this misreporting is that the collection item will remain on the credit file longer than they should. If that happens, you can dispute the old account.
2. Why are there 3 credit bureaus and how do they differ, if at all?
Industry consolidation has whittled what used to be scores of local and regional credit bureaus down to the three that we know of today: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. There was a day when you actually had a local credit bureau that would sell your credit file to lenders in your geographic locale. Over the past several decades the “big three” gobbled up these smaller credit bureaus in an effort to become truly “national” in their coverage. What this means is that if you lived in Miami all your life and then moved to Anchorage that your credit report would still follow you despite all of your credit having been issued when you lived in south Florida. The benefit of these national credit bureaus is that you won’t lose any of your solid credit management history simply because you’ve moved to another part of the country. Likewise, moving to another part of the country will not rid you of any negative credit reporting challenges that you may have faced in the past.
And, oh yes, they do differ. Equifax, TransUnion and Experian are three separate companies who compete against each other. As such, they do not share their information. It is very unlikely that your credit reports are the same at all three credit bureaus. There are three primary reasons why not:
Not all of your lenders report to all three of the credit bureaus – While some lenders do report your credit information to all three credit bureaus, this isn’t mandatory. There are almost always going to be differences in your credit history at one or more of the credit bureaus, though many will be minor and won’t affect your ability to get credit.
Even if all of your lenders DO report to all three credit bureaus the information will probably be different – The lenders that do report to all three credit bureaus do so by sending data tapes to them each month. The problem is that the credit bureaus may not receive them at the same time and don’t “run” them at the same time. As such, your account information will generally be different depending on the time of the month.
Not all lenders pull a credit report from all three credit bureaus when they are processing your credit applications – When you applied for that credit card or auto loan your lender most likely chose to pull only one of your three credit reports. This means that the “inquiry” is only going to show up on one of your three credit reports. The exception to this rule is a mortgage application. Most mortgage lenders will pull all three of your credit reports during their loan processing practices.
3. Should I pay off a judgment that is showing up on my credit report? If I do, and it is marked “paid,” what will this mean?
At Credit.com we will always advise you to pay off your debts, delinquent or otherwise. If you have a judgment on your credit report then it serves you well to pay it off. Here’s why:
Lenders with whom you want to do business will look upon a paid judgment more favorably. As a matter of fact, some lenders will require that you pay off delinquent obligations before they will approve your loans. You might as well do it sooner rather than later so you look proactive rather than reactive.
Credit scoring models will also view you more favorably if your delinquent obligations are paid in full. Since credit scoring is used in almost all of your credit transactions it’s in your best interest to maximize your scores by paying off your past due obligations.
4. Will all delinquent bills be reported to a credit bureau?
Most of them will eventually make it to your credit reports if you refuse to or cannot make your payments. It goes without saying that most of your traditional credit goes on your credit reports; auto loans, mortgages, credit cards, student loans and retail store cards. The following are some “non traditional” types of credit that don’t make it to your credit reports: utilities, cellular phone service and doctor’s bills. These credit items generally won’t show up on your credit reports unless you stop paying them. Once you stop paying them they’ll likely be sold off to third party collection agencies that will most definitely report them on your credit files. It may take a while, but eventually most will end up on your credit reports.
5. What are the top ways to rebuild your credit score quickly?
A low score is a result of poor credit management, or life events such as divorce or serious illness. Your credit history reflects that you are missing or have missed payments and/or you have too much debt. These two occurrences will make it very hard to earn a high score because they drive about 65% of the “points” in your credit scores.
The only way to rebuild your credit scores is to address why they are low in the first place. Sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people take a “shot in the dark” approach at rebuilding their credit scores. Or, they are guided by misinformation and/or unscrupulous individuals that promise a better credit score in exchange for a fee. Formulating a plan to rebuild your credit scores is not difficult. Here’s how to do it:
Review the “reason codes” - Reason codes are the four explanations as to why your scores aren’t higher than they are currently. They are delivered along with your scores whenever a lender requests it. For example, one of your reason codes might be “Serious Delinquency” or perhaps “Amount owed on accounts is too high.”
Be patient – After reviewing your reason codes you may realize that a plan to rebuild your scores may take longer than you’d like. A low score caused by delinquencies will take time to rebuild because delinquencies stay on your credit files for years. However, as these delinquencies age, their impact on your scores will lessen and your scores will increase as long as you now manage your credit well and pay accounts on time.
Establish new credit – If you’ve filed bankruptcy or have serious delinquencies, the best way to rebuild your score is to jump right back in and establish new credit. But this time you have to manage your accounts more responsibly. Make your payments on time and don’t use up more than 20% of the available credit limits on your credit cards. If you can do this then your scores will increase much faster than simply waiting for your delinquencies to fall off your reports.
6. Are there any legitimate ways to “repair” your credit and credit scores?
It depends. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act you have the right to ask that the information on your credit reports be verified as accurate and not outdated. The credit bureaus have 30 days to complete the verification process or they must remove or change the information to coincide with your dispute. Credit repair companies may assist you in writing and that is something that you can do on your own, for free. It is sort of like cleaning your gutters or changing your oil. You can do it yourself for a fraction of the cost…the question is, do you really want to?
From this point forward is where it gets a little fuzzy. Disputing data that you know to be accurate isn’t considered a legitimate dispute. And, the credit bureaus are likely to validate it as accurate and leave it on your reports. There are no surefire methods for “repairing” accurate credit data that you simply don’t want on your credit reports.
Beware the company or individual who guarantees that they can remove delinquencies or create a new credit report in your name. These are not legitimate practices and are illegal in most states.
7. If I have absolutely new credit how soon can I see a credit score developing?
Developing your credit score comes naturally as a result of building your credit history. You’ve heard the saying “if you build it they will come?” It applies to credit scoring as well. If you build your credit history then your score will come shortly after followed by more creditors that will want your business. The credit scoring models are looking for two things before they will “score” your credit files: age and activity. For some credit score models, you must have at least one account that is greater than 3 to 6 months old and at least one account that has been reported to the credit bureaus within the last 6 to 12 months. The same account can qualify you for a score. So, a credit report with one account open for 9 months that has reported to the credit bureaus within the past 30 days will qualify for a score. Once you’ve built a score, the challenge is to maximize it.
8. How many times can I pull my own credit reports before it impacts my credit score?
There is good news. Pulling your own credit report is considered a “consumer disclosure” request and therefore your scores will never be impacted. In fact, you can get your credit score and credit report card for free right now!. If, however, you are getting your credit reports from a friend at a mortgage company or at an auto dealership your scores will be impacted. The reason is that their “credit report access” accounts are not setup for consumer disclosure. They are set up as lenders so the “hard pull” will count against the consumers score.
9. How much does having my credit checked by a credit grantor impact my score?
This is called a credit inquiry. Anytime a creditor or anyone else accesses your credit report it posts an inquiry. This is a record of who pulled your credit report and on what date. The credit bureaus are required to keep a complete list of all inquiries into your credit report for, in most cases, 24 months.
According to credit scoring research, consumers who are actively shopping for credit are higher credit risks than consumers who are not. This makes common sense. Think about this: would you rather lend money to someone who is applying all over town or to someone who applies only when they need credit? Since there is a correlation between shopping for credit and being a higher credit risk an inquiry will, in some cases, lower your credit score. Don’t worry too much though.
Most credit scoring models have logic built into them that addresses “rate” shopping for auto loans, student loans, and mortgage lending. The models are smart enough to identify whether you are shopping for the best interest rate by comparing creditors and whether you are out trying to open many accounts in a short period of time.
The actual number of points that an inquiry is worth is a closely guarded secret. However, it’s safe to say that only those who are “excessively” shopping for credit will be seriously damaging their scores. The moral of this story is to shop and apply for credit only when you need it and, optimally, only after you have gotten your credit and scores in good order.
Gerri Detweiler is Credit.com's Director of Consumer Education. She focuses on helping people understand their credit and debt, and writes about those issues, as well as financial legislation, budgeting, debt recovery and savings strategies. She is also the co-author of Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and Reduce Stress: Real-Life Solutions for Solving Your Credit Crisis as well as host of TalkCreditRadio.com.