How to get a free credit report

Under federal law, you are entitled to receive a free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies:  Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.  If you want to routinely check your credit, the best way to do this is to order a report from one of the companies every four months. 



By doing this, you will have timely access to your report and will be able to correct errors three times per year at no cost.  The reports are available directly from these companies and can be ordered online by clicking the button above.


Personal information in your credit file


You should ensure that the personal information in your file is correct.  With identity theft on the rise, it’s more important than ever to verify your name, address, and date of birth.  Make sure that everything is spelled correctly and double-check your social security number.  While the credit agencies do not use the SSN as the primary source of identification, it is one of the few ways of distinguishing between people with similar names.


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Your report may include personal information that you can request to be removed.  Medical information cannot be included without your advance consent.  Debts more than seven years old, personal bankruptcy declarations more than ten years old, and unpaid tax liens over fifteen years old can be removed.


How to correct your credit report


The first step is to acquire a copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus.  Review the reports line by line and make a note of all errors that you find.  You should be keeping files of all your account statements, so use the data from them to compare to the entries on your report and note any discrepancies.  The next step is to notify the appropriate credit agencies in writing to document any errors.  Make sure you sign and date the letter, make a copy for yourself, and send it certified mail with return receipt.  You want proof that they received your letter, and it starts the clock on their thirty day investigation process.


Your letter should provide them with your pertinent identifying information including full name, address, date of birth, and social security number.  If your report has errors regarding your personal information, the corrections should be detailed in your letter.  It’s also a good idea to include a copy of your driver’s license as positive identification in the event that there is an identity theft issue.  You can block out the license number if you prefer.
Your letter should provide the name, address, and account number of the creditor or collection agency.  Also add other information that should be displayed on the report such as the open date, date of last activity, current balance, high credit, account type, and current status.  You should specify exactly what you are disputing and what you want them to change in order to correct the record.  Be as clear and direct as possible since they will not react positively if you are vague or ambiguous.  You can also attach a copy of the report with all of the errors highlighted and numbered sequentially.  This makes it easy to refer to each error within the body of your letter.  You should receive a response within the thirty day window.


Importance of working with all three credit bureaus


It’s very important to review all three reports since they will almost never contain identical credit file disclosure information.  These companies are completely independent and are drawing from a variety of different sources for millions of consumers.  The likelihood of mistakes is high, and all three companies can certainly make different mistakes at different times.  In addition, they each have their own proprietary methods of compiling and presenting the data they collect.


When you apply for a loan, you probably won’t know which of the credit agencies the financial institution will contact regarding your report.  Therefore, it’s imperative that you check all three of them, verify the accuracy of the information, and request changes and corrections when appropriate.


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Working with creditors


You also have the option of working directly with the creditors that you believe are incorrectly reflected on your report.  Your first contact may be a telephone call to advise them of the error and request that they remove or correct any negative items related to your account.  Make a note of the date and time of the call.  If they aren’t responsive, follow that up with a letter that provides them with the documentation that substantiates your claims.


If this isn’t successful, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission and file an official complaint.  The FTC will refer such complaints to the three major credit reporting agencies under a complaint referral program.  The disputed inaccuracies or incomplete information in the reports will be sent to the agencies with instructions to review the issues, make appropriate changes, and report back with the results.  You can also request that the errant creditors receive a revised report once all the updates have been completed and verified.  In addition, you can request that all creditors dating back six months receive a new credit report.


Tips for increasing and maintaining your score


Most important is to make your payments on time and for the full amount.  For most people, two or three credit cards should be adequate for your personal needs.  More than that will appear to be overextending your credit and will not improve your credit score. 


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If you run into trouble paying your bills, contact your creditor immediately and attempt to work out a mutually agreeable solution.  Doing this may avoid a negative mark on your report.  Try and keep your outstanding debt to a minimum.  If you are consistently near the upper limit on your credit cards, this will be viewed negatively.


Another important point is to minimize the number of inquiries into your report.  Inquiries usually occur when you submit an application for a loan or other form of credit and are designated as a hard pull.  This stays on your record and will drop your credit score by about five points for six months.  Only apply for credit that you actually need and make sure the amount is sufficient so that you won’t have to apply for more loans in the near future.


A soft pull does not affect your credit score because you are not applying for credit.  These may occur when a company checks to see if you might qualify for a new credit card, or when a mortgage lender pre-approves you for a home loan.  Banks will sometimes do a check before opening a new account, and some employers use this as a feature in their background investigations before offering you a job.  Your score will not be affected when you request your own credit report.


The idea of closing old accounts to improve your score is a myth.  While having too many accounts can hurt your score, once they are open the damage is already done.  Closing those accounts would decrease your available credit, which the credit agencies compare to the credit you are currently using.  Your outstanding balances would appear larger in comparison, which could subsequently hurt your score.  In addition, the length of time you have built your credit history is an important factor in calculating your credit score.  If your oldest accounts are closed, that would truncate the earliest portion of your history.