You may know that if you apply for a credit card, loan, a place to live or perhaps a job, there will be a credit check. But do you know what someone reviewing your credit will find? You can have at least an idea of the answer if you check your own credit first. Doing so won't affect your credit scores, so that's not a worry. Still, there are some common mistakes consumers make when they check their credit.
You have the right to one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Some people choose to look at all three of them at once; others choose a different one to review every four months. And though federal law doesn't yet give you a right to see your credit scores (which are derived from information in your credit reports) for free, there are plenty of free ways to do so. Some credit card issuers put your score on your statement or give you access to it online. You can also find free scores online (you can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, updated monthly, with personalized suggestions for improving yours).
So the biggest possible mistake is failing to check your credit at all. But assuming that you do, here are some missteps that could leave you with that "woulda, coulda, shoulda" feeling of regret.
1. Not keeping a credit report copy (in a safe place).
Whether you save a printout of your credit report or keep the information on your laptop (ideally in a password-protected file), if something changes, or you think something is different from what you remember, it's nice to have past information for comparison. And if you need to dispute something, you'll be glad you have the copy.
2. Not checking your report with all three bureaus.
Not all creditors report to all three agencies, and the agencies don't share information. Inaccuracies can creep in, including information that should have aged off and has not, errors introduced by mistyping or same-name mix-ups. If you find an error on one, it's smart to check the other two to make sure it gets cleared up everywhere it appeared.
3. Not getting the same score every time.
Your credit reports contain the information on which your credit scores are based. But while you have one credit report with each bureau, that data can be used to create hundreds of different credit scores. All credit scores are three-digit numbers that strongly influence whether you'll be extended credit and on what terms, but that's where the similarities end. Scoring models can be specific to a certain industry — credit card, mortgage or car loan, for example — and scores can vary, depending on which credit reporting agency was the source of the data. If you are trying to track changes in your credit, comparing anything other than the same scoring model from time to time isn't very useful.
4. Not looking at the scale on which your score is measured.
Scores are not all measured on the same scale. So a score that is "excellent" on one scale may be merely "good" on another. (Yes, that even goes for FICO scores; the FICO NextGen Score, for example, has a range of 150 to 950, while most FICO score models run from 300 to 850.) So the number doesn't mean so much without context.
5. Paying when you haven't used your free reports already that year.
You are entitled to three free credit reports every year (and in some situations or some states, even more). There are times that it makes sense to pay for an additional one. For example, say you plan to make a big purchase and you disputed an item that was likely bringing your credit score down and you want to make sure the report is now correct — it might be worth it to pay for an extra one. However, it's ideal to make sure you get your free reports before you pay for any further copies.
6. Getting obsessed with tiny changes.
It's rare for a credit score to stay exactly the same from month to month. Scores fluctuate, and you want to focus on trends, not moves of a few points up or down.
The good news is if you are reviewing your credit reports on an annual basis and checking your credit scores each month, you are already avoiding the biggest mistake — not having a clear idea of where you stand. Doing so will also alert you to changes that could suggest identity theft, which would allow you to limit the damage and get it resolved quickly.
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