For several years I have written and spoken of the need to obtain and review credit reports. While it’s been a constant message, for lack of time or print space I have seldom commented as to why this is important. Today we take a look at Credit Reports 101: A Primer.
A credit report is a detailed accounting of how you have dealt with credit and finances. The report spans many years and is used to determine credit worthiness and the rate of interest that is applied on loans. It also reveals capacity, character, reputation and lifestyle.
Often credit reports are requested by employers, landlords, or insurance companies to assess risk. An accurate credit report can have positive or negative impact on many aspects of your life.
Credit bureaus are reporting agencies that collect data and produce the credit report containing data from public records, financial institutions, employers and creditors. The report is sold to legitimate businesses, including landlords, that have a need for the information.
A credit report includes three types of information: personal or demographic identification such as names, aliases, current and past addresses, birth date, phone number, current and former employers and spouse’s name; public records including bankruptcies, tax liens, criminal convictions and judgments; and credit information covering open, active, and closed accounts including balances, account numbers and payment history.
As a side note, the report also displays what is called a “tradeline” that discloses creditor information if, for example, an institution transfers a loan to another creditor. As a rule of thumb, the information remains in your credit report for seven to 10 years.
Who are the credit bureaus? Most Americans recognize TransUnion, Experian and Equifax (you may recall the data breach a few years ago). Many Vermonters may also recognize the name Innovis. Credit reports also list inquiries; requests made to access your information.
By now you are possibly saying, “Very interesting! So, what does this have to do with scams or fraud?” Plenty! Criminals realize the value of credit reports since they are used to validate credit applications. A criminal who is able to access your credit report can use the information to open accounts in your name and then obtain loans or credit cards or make purchases for which you can be held accountable. In many cases, criminals have been able to access credit bureau files with stolen IDs and passwords and lockout the legitimate account owner.
What should you do? Get free copies of your credit reports by calling 877-322-8228 or going online to www.annualcreditreport.com (if you call, reports will be mailed; if you go online you will have immediate access).
Until recently, most people were able to get a copy of their report from each credit bureau once a year (twice a year for Vermonters). Response to the COVID crisis allows for weekly requests through April.
Note: many services advertise free credit reports. If you choose one of them, be prepared for an onslaught of marketing emails and phone calls and watch for special requirements.
Now that you have the credit report, review what it contains for data. Is it accurate as far as personal information, including correct spelling? Are the public records correct? Is the credit accounts section accurate? This requires the most effort since you will be reviewing the accuracy of information accumulated for up to ten years.
Finally, review the inquiries made to see who has requested your data. Release of a full credit report can only be made with your written permission. If you find errors, file a complaint with the company.
Finally, request a credit freeze from each of the bureaus. These lock your credit report, making your data secure from prying eyes. Freezes are free of charge and do not impact use of current accounts. They make access to the data impossible without your specific permission. If you need credit, you can lift or thaw the freeze at no cost.
Homework assignment: obtain and review your credit reports and freeze your reports. Questions, concerns, comments? Contact me at egreenblott@ aarp.org.