Americans can now check on their credit health more regularly, thanks to the indefinite extension of a free weekly credit report from each of the three national credit reporting agencies (NCRAs), Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Until the start of the pandemic, free credit reports from each agency were available once every 12 months. But, due to the economic uncertainty caused in 2020, the agencies switched to allowing the American public to check their credit reports each week. This was extended until the end of 2022, and then again into 2023. Now the extension is permanent.
How To Check Your Credit Reports For Free
In order to get your official credit report for free from each agency, you must go to the government-backed website AnnualCreditReport.com. Here you can choose to see just one report, or all three.
Once you're on the website, you will need to enter your personal information, and then you will have to provide a phone number and email for each report you request so that you can receive identity verification and view your reports securely.
Each report is slightly different, so you will have to look them over to ensure that all the information on your reports is accurate. If you find any discrepancies, such as one agency still reporting an account that has been paid off as delinquent, you can then dispute these errors online. This is important so that you can take control of your financial well-being.
Why Your Credit Reports Matter
Your credit reports are a wonderful tool for monitoring your credit health since the information listed in your reports generates your credit score, the number on which all financial decisions in America are based.
Most lenders look at your FICO score, but VantageScore also generates a credit score based on your reports, and some lenders use that number. Regardless of which credit score is being looked at it is generated by five factors that you find in your credit reports.
- Payment History - 35% of your score
- Amounts Owed - 30% of your score
- Length of Credit History - 15% of your score
- Credit Mix - 10% of your score
- New Credit - 10% of your score
These factors combine to make a total score between 300 and 850. The higher your credit score the better off you're likely to be financially.
How to Read Your Credit Reports
Your credit reports contain information in four different categories, Personally Identifiable Information, Credit Accounts, Credit Inquires, and Public Records and Collections. you should check each of these sections for accuracy, and ensure that the information contained in them is correct on all three reports.
Personally Identifiable Information
In this section, check that your name is spelled correctly and that your current address is showing. Ensure your SSN is correct. You may also find information here about security freezes or fraud alerts, so be sure to check this as well. If any of the information is incorrect you can file a dispute with the reporting credit agency.
In this section, you will find a report from each lender you have an open credit account with. These will report the type of account it is (like an auto loan or credit card), the date you opened the account, your credit limit, account balance, and payment history. This section makes up the majority of your FICO score and VantageScore.
Here you will see that you have accounts in good standing, or that have been paid on time. You should check each of your open accounts and make sure that the information is accurate and that there are no accounts showing as open that you have closed.
You will also find delinquent accounts or negative accounts. This shows information about the payments you have missed. Again, make sure all this information is correct and that you don't have any accounts showing delinquent when you've already paid them off. If something looks off be sure to contact the credit reporting agency or file a dispute online.
This section holds all your loan requests or loans that have been requested on your behalf due to credit offers. You will see these as hard inquiries, and soft inquiries. A hard inquiry is triggered when you request credit, such as a loan or a credit card. A soft inquiry happens when lenders order your credit report in order to send you a pre-approved credit card offer in the mail.
Lenders can only view hard inquiries on your reports, but both soft and hard pulls can be seen by you. A soft credit pull doesn't affect your credit score, but a hard one does. This means that if you apply for multiple loans of different kinds in a short amount of time, your credit score is likely to drop slightly.
ACE Tip: You can reduce the number of hard inquiries made to your credit report by shopping for the same kind of loan in what's known as a rate shopping window. This is a period of two weeks in which all requests for credit of the same type only impact your credit as one pull instead of many.
Here, you'll want to ensure that the chard credit pulls are all things you recognize. Credit reports show the name of the creditor who requested your report, and when, and their business type. Report any activity that may be fraudulent or suspicious.
Public Records and Collections
This section shows public record information from state and county courts and includes bankruptcies and accounts that are past due and have been sent to collections. Make sure you know what should be here, and what should not. Most information "falls off" your credit reports after seven years, but Chapter 7 bankruptcies last for 10 years. Keep these dates in mind when you're checking this section.
How to Use Your Credit Reports to Get Back on Track
If you're struggling with credit issues knowing how to read your credit reports can be an important part of credit repair. In order to repair your credit, you must first know what's on it, and what lenders are seeing.
You can use the information in your credit reports to keep track of how often you're applying for credit, to monitor accounts that you're closing, and to keep track of your credit usage. Most lenders like to see a credit score of around 670 or higher, and knowing which areas of your credit to work on can be imperative to reaching this goal.
For example, seeing that your credit card balances are higher than 30% of your limits can signal that you need to lower your credit usage. Lenders prefer borrowers that don't carry too much debt.
Or, if you see credit inquiries that you know you didn't make you can dispute them and get them off your account to improve your score.
- Get your credit reports before you shop for car loans
- Check them for accuracy
- Dispute any errors on your credit report, with the reporting agency.
- It's also a good idea to know your credit score, but you may have to pay to find this information. Or, you can check out these ways to check your credit score for free.
Knowing how to use the information in your credit reports can be a key to success if you're struggling to stay on top of your financial health. This is especially important before taking on any big financial decisions, like an auto loan.