If a credit score is like your GPA, then a credit report is like a report card by some sadistic teacher who writes down what you’ve done, but doesn’t write your grades on it. It simply lists out what lines of credit you have (credit cards, student loans, car loans, mortgage) and some other information about you. If you want to get your credit "GPA," you’ll have to pay for it*.
What makes this even more maddening is the fact that you have three credit reports – so it’s more like there’s three teachers putting out these grade-less report cards. The three reports are pretty similar, but some companies don’t report to all three, so what appears on your Equifax report might not be on your TransUnion report, but it might be on your Experian report.
The government decided that this was annoying and confusing enough, and that we should all have access to our own credit reports once a year, for free. So they passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), which set up the website AnnualCreditReport.com. Not to be confused with FreeCreditReport.com – which, although it has catchy commercials, is not actually free.
AnnualCreditReport.com = Free
FreeCreditReport.com = Not Free
I know what you’re thinking. "Could they make this a little more confusing for me?" It’s like trying to play a game of Twister while blindfolded! But here’s the bottom line:
You’ve got three credit reports – one from Equifax, one from Experian, and one from TransUnion. They’re periodically being updated, behind your back, as you go about your life. Checking in on them is one of the best ways to make sure your identity hasn’t been stolen. Also, credit reports have some truly shame-worthy inaccuracy rates, so you should check them to make sure they’ve got your information straight.
Checking Your Reports
So, AnnualCreditReport.com allows you to grab your three reports once a year for free. Now, you could do what I did the first time I learned that, and grab all three of your reports right away. Unfortunately, once I did that, I realized I couldn’t check any of them again for a year, unless I wanted to pay up. Ack! What if something went wrong? What if I thought my identity had been stolen sometime during that year?
The smarter thing to do is to just grab one for now. It doesn’t matter which one – any of the three will do. Select one from the site, enter in all of the information, and have a glance at your report.
Then, four months from now, go back and grab your report from one of the other two companies. Four months after that, get the final report. And then, four months after that – magic happens! A year will have passed since you grabbed that first report, and you can get a new free report from that company.
And the cycle goes on and on. Spacing it out over a year is incredibly helpful – but you have to actually remember to do it. I remember because I’m a nerd, and I get all excited whenever January/May/September rolls around: "TIME TO CHECK MY CREDIT REPORT YAY!" But you may want to set up an email reminder with a calendar program, because you’re probably less of a nerd than I am.
If Something is Wrong with Your Report
It happens. If something is just inaccurate (a debt that you’ve paid off is still listed as having a balance), there’s an easy link on each companies website to report a "discrepancy." Fill out the form, they contact the company that you have the debt with, and the company has 30 days prove that they’re right about what’s on the report.
If it looks like something big (you see something that is totally not something you did, and it looks like identity theft), you’ll want to first file a police report (fun!), and then put a freeze on your credit reports. This will make it so that no one can get credit using your information. Not fun for you, but necessary to stop an identity thief from causing more trouble.
If All is Well With Your Report
Print it, file it (in a locked file cabinet, if you can), and sit pretty for four months until you check the next report.
*There is a way to get one of your credit scores for free. I’ll tell you about it next week.