When was the last time you saw a copy of your credit report? Do you know your credit score? Do you even know if it's good or bad?
If you can't answer these questions, you have some homework to do -- especially if you're planning to apply for a mortgage loan in the near future.
Here are some step-by-step instructions to help you obtain your credit reports, review them for accuracy, and correct any errors you come across.
Step 1 - Understand how your credit affects you.
When you apply for a home mortgage loan (or some other major purchase), you can be sure your credit will go under the microscope. Mortgage lenders will analyze your credit to find out what risk category you fall into.
When your credit score is high, your risk factor is low. In this scenario, you'll have a good chance of qualifying for a loan. But when the opposite is true -- low credit score and high risk factor -- you could have trouble obtaining a loan.
Credit reports are maintained by three credit reporting companies (sometimes called credit bureaus or agencies): Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your credit score is based on the information contained in these credit reports. Three agencies, three reports, three credit scores ... all about you!
Step 2 - Request copies of your credit report.
According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the credit reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. To request your credit reports from all three companies, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com, or call 1-877-322-8228.
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If you request your report online, you should have access to it immediately. If you request your credit report through the toll-free number, it will be processed and mailed to you within 15 days.
Your credit report will not come with a credit score, so you'll need to purchase this separately. You can obtain your credit score by visiting www.MyFICO.com. This website is owned by Fair Isaac's, the organization that converts your credit reports into credit scores. Here's a quote from Fair Isaac's:
"FICO scores are your credit rating. Most lenders base approval on them. You have three FICO scores, one for each credit bureau, and you can only get all three from myFICO."
Step 3 - Review your credit reports for errors.
Examine your credit reports closely for any errors or inaccuracies. Make sure your personal information is correct and up to date. Check for loans or lines of credit that aren't yours, as this could be an indication of credit fraud. Anything at all that seems out of place, write it down for further investigation.
Step 4 - Start the correction process immediately.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), credit reporting companies are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your credit report. So don't hesitate to exercise your rights under this law.
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If you only find errors on one report (for example, the one provided by Experian), you only need to contact the company associated with that report. Visit the company's website to find instructions on how to begin the correction process. By law, each credit reporting company must publish their correction requirements.
You can find these instructions on each company's website:
Tell the company in writing what information is inaccurate. File a copy of your initial request, as well as any subsequent communication (such as their response to you). Start a folder and label it with "credit report" to keep your documents together. Keep the folder secure, as it will obviously contain sensitive information.
Step 5 - Follow up thoroughly.
The credit reporting company will investigate your claim within 30 days of receiving it. But why wait? I recommend contacting them after 10 business days, at least to make sure they've received your correction request. Follow up regularly after that. Don't allow your issue to "slip through the cracks."
Step 6 - Continue your education.
If you believe your credit report contains errors, educate yourself on the correction process. This article provides a good overview, but an important issue like credit deserves a more complete education.
Websites worth a visit:
The FTC's Credit Center:
Credit Advice from the Better Business Bureau:
Credit Section of About.com:
Credit Learning Center at Home Buying Institute:
* Copyright 2006, Brandon Cornett. You may republish this article if you keep the byline and author's note, and also leave the hyperlink intact.
About the Author
Brandon Cornett is the editor of homebuyinginstitute.com, the Internet's largest library of home buying advice.