How to get a free credit report

Checking your report regularly can help you improve credit and prevent fraud. (iStock)

Your credit report provides a history of your dealings with credit, including installment loans, revolving lines of credit, collection accounts, bankruptcies and more.

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When reading your report, you’ll see your various credit accounts and your payment history with each, along with each inquiry from when you’ve applied for credit.

Why it’s important to check your credit report

Checking your credit report on a regular basis is essential for several reasons. The most important reason is to spot and prevent future fraud, especially in cases where your identity has been stolen without your knowledge (like in the case of a data breach).

In some cases, there may be inaccurate information on your credit report, which you can dispute with the creditors and credit reporting bureaus.

If you’re working to improve your credit score, your credit report can also help you know where to focus your efforts. For example, you can see the balance for each credit account, which loans have late payments, how many inquiries you have from the last two years and more.

How to check your credit report

Federal law allows consumers to get a copy of their credit report for free from each of the three national credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, every 12 months.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Visit AnnualCreditReport.com
  • Click on the button that says “Request your free credit reports”
  • Fill out a form with your personal information, including your name, date of birth, Social Security number, current and previous addresses (if applicable)
  • Pick which credit bureaus, from which you want to request a report
  • Answer a few questions to verify your identity—examples include information about past employers, loan payments and lenders you’ve worked with
  • Review your report directly on the website or print it out

With a few exceptions, you’ll find a lot of the same information on each credit report, so it may not make sense to check all three at the same time. And because you can check each report every 12 months, consider staggering your requests to get free access to one report every four months.

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What to do if you find inaccurate or fraudulent information

Credit reporting involves a lot of data, and sometimes lenders and even the credit bureaus make mistakes. As a result, it’s possible to have erroneous information show up on your credit reports. If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you may also find fraudulent accounts on your reports.

If you do find something on your report that you don’t recognize, search the lender online first. It’s possible that the account is legitimate, but the lender uses a different name for credit reporting—for example, Chase credit card accounts will show up as JPMCB Card.

If you’ve had a debt sent to collections, you may also not recognize the collection agency if they haven’t yet contacted you.

If you can confirm the information is incorrect or fraudulent, it may be a good idea to check your other credit reports to see if you need to file multiple disputes. If you checked your report through AnnualCreditReport.com, you can start the dispute process directly through the website. Alternatively, you can contact the credit bureau directly.

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Provide as much information you can about the account, including documentation to show the details are wrong if you have it. Once you’ve filed a dispute, it can take up to 45 days to complete the process, but it often happens more quickly.

Once the inaccurate or fraudulent information has been removed, you should see your credit score respond accordingly, especially if the data was negative.