How to Check your Credit Report

The Fair Credit Reporting Act, passed in 1970, regulates the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer credit information, and is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  Among its provisions, it entitles consumers to a free copy of their credit report once a year.

Why is it important to have access to your credit report?  Your credit report determines your credit score, which has a huge impact on your ability to get a mortgage, to get a credit card, to rent an apartment, even to get a job.  By examining your credit report regularly, you can see what is helping and hurting your score, and you can make informed decisions of what actions you need to take to improve it.

Plus, errors on credit reports are quite common.  Often things end up on your report because someone with the same or a similar name did something bad, and someone or some computer somewhere assumed it was you.  If you check your credit report regularly, you can monitor it for errors like this, and get them corrected if you do discover them.  Not to mention you can spot if your identity has been stolen and someone has been running up charges in your name.

There are three main credit bureaus that compile credit reports, namely Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.  The reports should be similar but are not always identical.  It is possible for one to have an error that the others do not, so if you want to really be meticulous about these things, you should get reports from all three each year.

You can request reports from them directly, or through a third party.

Many companies and websites promise to send you a copy of your credit report for free, but you need to be careful.  Typically to get the credit report you have to sign up for a free “trial offer” of some credit-related service they’re selling, which you’ll then have to figure out how to cancel in time to not be charged when the trial period ends, no doubt involving fighting through a salesman begging and cajoling you not to cancel.

Really you should skip all that.  If instead of dealing directly with each of the three credit bureaus you prefer the efficiency of going to one source, you should go to (not to be confused with commercial sites with similar names).  This is the only source authorized by the FTC for the free annual credit reports you’re entitled to by law.  And it is indeed free, not sort of free, not free if you remember to cancel something else, not free if you’re willing to sit through a sales pitch for something, but free free.

Once at the site, simply select your state and click on “Request Report.”  This will take you to a form to fill out.  The whole thing can be done online.  You can then request to review the resulting reports – from all three credit reporting agencies – online, or receive them by phone or mail.

You are entitled to your reports for free each year, but not the numerical score the credit bureaus derive from the report.  However, if you wish to obtain this as well, each of the credit bureaus does offer it when you get your report from them.  Unfortunately it’s with strings attached.  You may not have to pay for it, but you’ll have to sign up for, and remember to cancel, a trial offer for one of their services.  So pretty much the same procedure as for getting a “free” credit report from the less reputable sites.