Staying on top of your own finances can be challenging enough; the last thing you need is someone else’s mistake bringing you down. And yet, it happens more often than you’d think.
A study by the Federal Trade Commission found one in five consumers had an error on their credit report. And one in 10 saw their credit scores improve as soon as it was fixed, with some increasing by 100 points. So it’s worth checking yours.
Remind me about credit reports and scores...
Your credit report is like your financial permanent record, keeping track of how well you pay off loans and maintain lines of credit. Based on what’s on yours, you get a credit score: three digits that tell potential lenders how much you can be trusted to repay what you borrow. The widely used FICO score ranges from 300 (bad) to 850 (big league).
What’s on my credit report?
Whenever you take out a loan or open a line of credit, the lender reports it to the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—then updates them on how you’re maintaining it. So your report includes your balance(s), whether you pay on time or if you’re delinquent. It also includes personal info, like your name, address and whether you’ve filed for bankruptcy or had bills go to collections.
One thing that’s not? A new rule allows for a 180-day reprieve to deal with unpaid medical bills before they’re added to your report.
Why are credit reports and scores important?
Your credit report helps determine your credit score, which helps determine whether you qualify for a loan and how much you’ll pay in interest. The higher your score, the better the terms and the more you’ll save over time. (Some employers and landlords also use your credit history to decide whether to green-light you.)
How can errors show up in reports?
As the Equifax breach taught us in September 2017, credit bureaus aren’t perfect—and neither are you or your lenders—so mistakes appear as often as humans make them. Of course, they can arise less innocently, too: If your identity was stolen, and the thief opened a new account in your name, it will be exposed in your credit report.
How do I make sure my reports are correct?
Check them out by pulling a copy from each credit bureau; you can get them for free once every 12 months through www.annualcreditreport.com. You won’t get your credit score with those free reports, but you can look for free via sites like Credit Karma and Credit Wise, or through any of your banks or credit card issuers that offer that benefit.
What errors should I look for?
Everything from mundane mistakes like name misspellings to more impactful errors like incorrect balances, late payments or old blemishes that should have fallen off your report already. (Negative information like late payments, Chapter 13 bankruptcies, foreclosures and collections should disappear after seven years; Chapter 7 bankruptcies linger for 10.)
You could also discover a fraudulent account, collection or public record that isn’t yours—so scan carefully for anything fishy.
What if I find an error?
Report it. You can dispute errors online for free on each bureau’s website. You might be required to provide supporting documentation, such as your license or birth certificate, as well as bank statements or cancelled checks. (You can give your lender a heads up, too—but either way, the dispute ends up in their hands once the bureau notifies them.)
How long will it take to correct?
Officially, you can expect answers within 30 to 45 days, but John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax, says it typically takes about two weeks. Once an error is removed, your score can change as soon as FICO next calculates it, which it does each time it’s requested.
How else can I improve my credit?
Paying off your debts as quickly as possible, making on-time payments, and keeping the balance on your credit cards low will all help you keep your score high. If you want a quick lift, you can also try asking for a credit limit increase—but don’t use it. That can improve your credit utilization ratio (credit you’re using versus total credit available), which can give your score a boost.