ou don't want to be the last to know what your credit report says about how you handle money. That's especially true if you're about to borrow money for a large purchase such as a home or a new car. And lenders aren't the only ones seeking information about you--landlords, employers, and insurers all use information in your credit report to help them decide whether to hire you, sell you an insurance policy, or rent you an apartment. So, it pays to keep track of what's in it.

What's in your credit report?
Credit reporting agencies gather information about how you handle your money. Your credit report contains:

  • Information about how much credit you have and how you repay your bills.
  • Public record information, including arrests, bankruptcy, tax liens, or monetary judgments filed against you.
  • Identity information: your name, nicknames, Social Security number, birth date, current and previous addresses, and the names of past and current employers.
  • The names of anyone who's obtained a copy of your credit report for any reason. This may stay on your account for up to two years.
Errors happen, but try not to be part of the problem. One way is to consistently use the same form of your name--especially if your name is common, or you're John Doe III. Take the time to fill out credit applications neatly, accurately, and completely.
      Consistently use the
      same form of
      your name--especially
      if your name
      is common.

Who has access to my report?
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a credit bureau may only sell your report to lenders, insurers, landlords, employers, and some businesses who meet the need as defined by law. You must give your written consent before credit bureaus can give information about you to your employer or to prospective employers.

Getting a copy of your report
If you're about to buy a house or a car, or apply for a new job, apartment, credit card, or other personal loan, your first step is to order a copy of your credit report. It's a good idea to contact all three major national credit bureaus because chances are more than one has a file on you (see sidebar). Each copy may cost up to $8, plus tax, depending on your state. This is a small price to pay for confirming the health of your credit report.

You can get a free copy of your report if you're ever denied credit, a job, insurance, or rental housing because of negative information in your credit report. The denying party must give you the name and the address of the credit reporting agency that provided the information; under federal law, you can obtain a free copy of this report within 60 days of the denial. Also, federal law allows you one free report a year if you can prove that 1) you're unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days, 2) you're on welfare, or 3) your report is inaccurate because of fraud.

Be wary of any on-line or other offers that promise you a free copy of your credit report. To get the "free" report, one such offer requires you to sign up for a year's worth of credit protection service for an automatically renewing fee of $60.

      Be wary of any
      on-line or other offers
      that promise you a
      free copy of your report.

The Big Three

For more information about how to receive a copy of your credit report, contact the three national credit reporting agencies:

Correcting errors
When you receive your report, look it over for inaccurate information including variations of your name, your address, your employer, and any inaccurate negative information about your bill-paying history. Follow the credit reporting agency's written instructions on the back of your report outlining how to request corrections. The credit reporting agency must investigate your claim within a reasonable time, usually within 30 days. Under federal law, if the agency can't verify a disputed item, it must delete it or correct it. Once you've reviewed the corrections, you may request that a corrected copy be sent to any lender that's received it within the past six months, or to an employer that's received one in the past two years.

If your dispute is not resolved to your satisfaction, ask the reporting agency to include a statement of dispute in your file and in future reports.

Repairing your credit record
If your report contains accurate negative information, federal law requires that most of it be removed after seven years, most bankruptcies after 10 years. However, there's no time limit if you apply for a job with a salary of more than $75,000 or for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance.

If you've damaged your credit report by bad credit habits or bankruptcy, it doesn't always mean you're doomed until the negative-information reporting period expires. If you pay your existing bills promptly and keep your credit in check, that positive information gradually shows up on your credit report, making lenders take notice of your efforts. Talk to the people at your credit union about acquiring new and improved credit management habits.

No matter how sorely tempted you are to score a quick fix, don't waste your money on a credit repair clinic. They'll charge you to "fix" your credit report, but only time and effort on your part will ever change any accurate negative information.

Protect yourself
You may be inadvertently hurting your ability to get credit. For example, if you have too many open credit card accounts, potential lenders may deny you credit because you already have access to too much. If you make late payments, lenders may determine you're having trouble paying your bills. If your credit report lists a large number of inquiries, lenders may fear you're applying for too much credit. On the other hand, if a lender taps your credit report for a promotional mailing, this doesn't register as an inquiry on your record.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, creditors and insurers may use your credit file as a basis for sending you unsolicited "preapproved" offers. Thieves sometimes intercept these mailings and use them to get credit in your name. Any such offer must include a toll-free number you can call to have your name and address removed from these lists for two years. If you complete a form provided by one of the three national reporting agencies (see sidebar), you can keep your name off these lists permanently.
      Talk to people
      at your credit union
      about acquiring
      new and improved
      credit management habits.

Keep things current
A good deal of information gets added to your credit reports each year, and some of it may be incorrect or fraudulent. So, add it to your list of New Year's resolutions to order a copy of your report each year.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.