Before you dig in to work on strengthening your credit, you may wonder: what is credit and why does it matter? When people talk about your credit, they mean your credit history. Your credit history is a record of how you have used money in the past. That includes things like how many credit cards you have, how many loans you have, and whether you pay your bills on time.
Credit bureaus – like Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – compile this information into your credit report. Then, they sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, and other businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, or renting a home. How you handled your money and paid bills in the past will help companies decide if they want to do business with you.
That’s why your credit history can make a big difference when you apply for a loan or credit card, rent an apartment, buy a home, or buy or lease a car. Because lenders, landlords, and others care how you handle your credit, you should care too.
To start off it’s important to first check your credit report. Check out this video on important tips about checking your credit report from the Federal Trade Commission:
Getting your Credit Report
Now that you know why credit matters, it’s time to get your credit in order. The first step is to pull your credit report. You can request a free copy at annualcreditreport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228. Please note, there are other websites out there that may charge money or may be set up to steal your personal information. Make sure you go to annualcreditreport.com.
Here’s what you will find: First, you’ll fill out a form with your name, birth date, and Social Security number. Make sure you’re using a secured internet connection, like at home – not public Wi-Fi.
Next, you’ll pick which reports you want. You’re entitled to a free report each year from each of the nationwide credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Sometimes one bureau will have slightly different information than the others. So, you’ll want to make sure all three reports are accurate. You can get the reports all at once or stagger your requests to keep an eye on things throughout the year. The choice is up to you.
Last, you’ll answer questions about the person you know best – you. They may be about prior addresses, loans, or other personal information. This is to make sure that it’s really you ordering your report. If you have trouble with the online questions, you can call 1-877-322-8228.
Then, you’ll get a copy of your credit report. You can look at it then or download it to review later. Just remember to keep the report stored securely – either under lock and key if it’s paper, or on a password-protected device if it’s digital.
For more tips, read Free Credit Reports.
Reading your credit report
What’s a credit report? It’s a summary of your credit history. It lists personal information (name, address, Social Security number), payment history on credit accounts (like mortgages, student loans, credit cards), and public records (like if you’ve filed bankruptcy). Read the report carefully. Make sure the information is correct:
- Personal information – are the name and addresses correct?
- Accounts – do you recognize them? Is the information correct?
- Negative information – do you recognize the accounts here? Is the information correct?
- Inquiries – do you recognize the places you applied for credit?
What if you don’t have a credit report or your report is blank? You might not have a credit history if you haven’t had a credit card or taken out a loan. To build a credit history, you’ll need to open accounts that are included in a credit report. For example, you could apply for a secured card, where you pay a security deposit to show the bank you’re committed to paying back what you borrowed. It’s very important to pay these off on time though, or it could end up hurting your credit.
Fixing your credit report
What if your credit report has mistakes. Maybe it’s an account that you didn’t open, an error in your name or address, or a bankruptcy that doesn’t really belong to you. Here are tips on fixing your credit, while avoiding scams.
If you see mistakes in your report, contact the credit bureau and the company that provided the information. Ask both to correct their records. Include as much detail as possible, plus copies of supporting documents, like payment records or court documents.
When contacting the credit bureau, the process depends on whether you’re an identity theft victim:
If the errors are not related to identity theft: Tell the credit bureau (by mail or online) what information you think is inaccurate. By mail, you can use our sample dispute letters. Online, use the dispute portals for each credit bureau (Equifax, Experian, Transunion) that listed the inaccuracy. The credit bureau must investigate your claim and make any necessary updates to your information within 30 days. The bureau also must contact the company that provided the information. If the company finds the information was inaccurate, they must notify all three credit bureaus to correct your file.
If the errors are due to identity theft: You can block identity theft-related debts from appearing on your credit report. Visit IdentityTheft.gov to learn the steps and to get an Identity Theft Report to send to the credit bureaus. Remember that you can use Identity Theft Reports only for debts that are the result of identity theft. Filing an Identity Theft Report to block debts that you owe is against the law.
If you’re considering paying a credit repair organization to help fix your credit, keep in mind that anything they can do for you legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost. Credit repair organizations can NOT legally remove accurate negative information from your credit report.
If you hire a credit repair organization, don’t do business with one that:
- Insists you pay before it helps you (that’s illegal)
- Tells you not to contact the credit bureaus directly
- Disputes information in your credit report you believe is accurate
If you have a problem with a credit repair organization, report it to the Federal Trade Commission. For more tips, read Fixing Your Credit, Credit Repair, and Credit Repair Scams.
by Lisa Weintraub Schifferle
Attorney, FTC, Division of Consumer & Business Education