How Looking at Your Free Credit Report Can Save You Money

By Markets Fool.com

Credit scores and savings tend to go hand in hand. After all, consumers who havehigh credit scorestypically:

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  • Get lower interest rates on home, car and other types of loans
  • Pay less for insurance and credit
  • Get access to more exclusive credit cards that offer generous rewards
  • Have negotiating power and the ability to secure favorable loan terms and repayment schedules

The sum of these benefits is money in the bank, and yet many people fail to cash in on the opportunity to save by making sure their free credit reports are accurate. The three major credit bureaus -- TransUnion, Experian and Equifax -- collect and maintain credit information to create credit reports for many Americans. And the information collected in these reports is used to calculate credit scores, which is why it's important for consumers to monitor their credit reports for any errors or mistakes.

But a 2013 survey from online legal resource FindLaw.com found that 22 percent of Americans said they had never checked their credit reports to verify their information.According to a 2012studyby the Federal Trade Commission, "One in five consumers had an error that was corrected by a credit reporting agency after it was disputed on at least one of their three credit reports." Of these consumers, 20 percent experienced an increase in their credit score once the error was removed.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you may obtain a free credit report from the three credit bureaus once every 12 months. When cash is on the line, you can't afford to be complacent. Prioritize savings by reviewing your credit reports and keeping a watchful eye on the items below.

1. Contact information
Your free credit report contains a list of personal identifiers, including your full name, address, Social Security number (SSN) and date of birth. If your credit report contains inaccurate information about your identity, it's possible you might be attached to someone else's (bad) credit score. Check your report to make sure all of your personal information is correct.

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2. Mixed reporting
According to Experian, if you were named after a family member, the credit bureaus might mix up your reporting information, resulting in a mixed credit file. The New York Times reports mixed files also frequently happen with individuals who have similar Social Security numbers, birth dates or addresses.Review each account on your credit report (as well as your contact information, again) and highlight unfamiliar information.

3. Missing information
Positive credit is built with positive accounts. Unfortunately, some creditors mightnot report your credit accounts to the credit bureaus, costing you an opportunity to strengthen your score.

According toExperian, "Some people have the misperception that the national credit reporting companies go to every lender and collect their account information. In fact, businesses decide where they will provide their account information, or if they will provide any information at all."

So, make a list of your active accounts and highlight the items missing from your credit reports. Contact your creditors and ask them to remedy the issue. Or, perhaps consider moving your account to a different creditor who will report the account to the credit bureaus.

4. Conflicting information
Some creditors might choose to report to one bureau over the others, and that can cause inconsistencies in your credit reports. Your reports will most likely differ from one another if the credit bureaus have different information in your credit files. But if one credit bureau has a more positive report, you should try to go tocreditors who will pull your credit report from that particular credit bureau. Here's an example fromCreditSesame.com:

"If you know your Equifax credit report is reporting a tax lien that's not being reported on your Experian or TransUnion credit reports you may have a lower score at Equifax because of the negative item. In a situation like that, it might benefit you to apply for credit with lenders that are not going to pull your Equifax credit report."

5. Negative (and inaccurate) information
In general, negative citations, such as late payments,could remain on your credit reports for up to seven years -- or more, depending on the item. While you can't do much about an accurate negative mark, you can prevent inaccurate and negative information from hurting your credit score. Comb your credit reports to spot any errors.

6. Duplicate information
If a creditor reports a debt or a loan more than once, it could create aduplicate account, affecting your credit utilization ratio and hurting your credit score. Contact your creditor and ask them to correct the error.

7. Account accuracy
Revolving credit (i.e. credit cards) and installment credit (i.e. student loans)can impact your credit score. Review your current credit accounts to verify that each account is listed correctly and to make sure the balances on your revolving accounts are correct,advises Credit.com. Also, make sure your payment history for your installment accounts is correct.

8. Items that should be deleted
Judgments, liens and bankruptcies can wreak havoc on your credit score for up to7 to 10 years, depending on the item. Highlight any items that should be deleted by now, and urge the credit reporting agency to remove them from your report.

9. Credit history length
Credit history length accounts for 15 percent of your FICO credit score, and strength thrives on long-term experience. According to MyFICO.com, you can see the dates you opened your credit accounts. So, review these dates to verify when they were opened.

10. Payment history
Timely bill payments account for 35 percent of your FICO credit score, so review your reports to ensure your payment information isn't missing. According to Credit.com, having accounts that are paid on time can help "offset" negative information on your credit report.

11. Collection items
In general, collections can stay on your credit report for about seven years, a consequence that is sure to affect your bank account. Check your credit report for any erroneous collections accounts. If you believe the collections account is a mistake or outdated, dispute it.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a collections item on a credit report could lead to a consumer with a FICO score of 680 experiencing a score drop of 45 to 65 points, hurting their chances of getting access to insurance, housing or employment.

12.Unpaid parking tickets
It's easy to forget about an unpaid parking ticket, but this small infraction can lead to collection citations, impacting your credit score for up to seven years. According toNerdWallet, "Any type of collections activity reflects negatively on a credit report." Make note of these debts and pay them immediately.

13. Identity theft
Identity theft was the top consumer complaint in the U.S. last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, it was the top complaint too, and American consumers reportedly lost more than $1.6 billion to fraud that year. Many people don't realize they have been targeted until the damage is done. Review your credit reports to spot suspicious activity of identity theft.

14. Incorrect balances
Thirty percent of your FICO credit score is based on amounts owed, a huge piece of the financial pie. Make a list of your current accounts and their balances, and compare them to the information listed on your credit report. Accuracy is vital. According to myFICO.com, you should dispute any errors you find regarding the amounts you owe on your open accounts.

15. Credit inquiries
While "soft inquiries" don't have an effect on your credit score, hard inquiries do. According to Experian, your credit reports will show all of yourcredit inquiries.Review your list of inquiries to confirm that each one was authorized, as you can only dispute hard inquiries that occurred without your permission, reports CreditKarma.com.

16. Cosigned accounts
If you cosigned a loan, keep track of the borrower's progress by practicing open communication and reviewing the account on your credit reports. TransUnion advises keeping an eye on your report to make sure the person is maintaining the account.Don't let another person's actions hurt your credit score.

17. Medical debt
Medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S., according to a NerdWallet health data analysis published in March 2014. It's important to confirm that your credit reports reflect the correct information regarding your medical debt. If you see that there is an erroneous medical collection account on your credit report, take the necessary steps to amend this.

Credit health isn't an exact science. You might not know a problem exists until you see it in black and white on your credit report. Reviewing your reports is the best way to familiarize yourself with the scoring process, allowing you to take control of financial stability and savings. Don't miss the chance to correct harmful mistakes that can boost your credit score and lead to more savings.

This article originally appeared on gobankingrates.com.

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