It sounds simple enough: go to www.annualcreditreport.com and request a free copy of your credit report.

Then you try to do it and it’s another story.

Where Do I Get a Free Credit Report?

The above website offers a free, no strings attached credit report.

Most other advertised offers require you to sign up for a credit monitoring service or another service in exchange for a free report. A credit monitoring service starts with a free 30-day trial and then charges an ongoing monthly fee in exchange for instant access to your report without impacting your credit score. They also monitor activity on your report and send you notifications. Some services block your credit file requiring you to lift the block if you want to apply for credit or authorize someone to view the report. These security measures help identify fraudulent activity quickly if it occurs.

www.annualcreditreport .com provides free access to one free report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus, once every 12 months. If you look at the Equifax credit file on May 2, 2016, you will have access again at no charge on May 3, 2017. You can also access this information by phone at 877-322-8228. With online access, a downloaded report is available as a pdf which can be saved on your computer. Creating an account will give you access to the report for 30 days. You may also print the report and keep it for your records. This is a good idea for those with collection accounts so you can monitor information like reported default dates, which could become inaccurate if the debt is sold.

The three main credit bureaus are Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian. You may get all three reports at once or spread them throughout the year. Access to each report is available at the above website.

What Information Is Required to Gain Access to Your Credit File?

You begin by choosing from which company you want to receive a report and then you are taken directly to the bureaus site. If you start at the specific credit bureau site, the report will not be free. Basic information is entered including your name, social, birthday and address.

Once your report has been found, you are asked a series of security questions to verify your identity. Security questions can be tricky because it may ask questions based on information that could be decades old. Questions like streets you have lived on, counties you have lived in, can be difficult to remember. Account questions may be even harder because, who remembers the month you opened an account? Questions like, “You opened a credit card account in November of 1989, which company was it?” This can be hard to remember if you don’t keep track of when you opened accounts and what the minimum monthly payments are. Multiple accounts with the same company and credit accounts being sold can make the process even more tricky.

As a result, it is not uncommon to fail the challenge questions. A report can be requested by mail as long as you include pertinent identifying information such as a copy of your social security card and driver’s license. A page will come up that can be printed with instructions and a mailing address. It takes about 2 weeks to get a report through the mail.

Printing out your report for the next time you want a free copy of your credit file can help identify when accounts were opened, credit limits, and other details you may be asked.

You Have the Report, Now What

  • Look for errors. The first step is to look over the report details to verify its accuracy. Are there any accounts you don’t recognize, addresses you have not lived, or jobs you have not held? Information is gathered from a range of sources and data is often not accurate. Even though an old address or inaccurate job history job may not seem relevant, and does not impact your score, it is good practice to ensure everything on the report is accurate. Fraud is a real problem for companies and many are using credit file information to verify your identity, particularly for online
  • Check late payments which are reported for seven years. The older they are the less it will impact your credit score. Generally, you cannot do anything about late payments except wait for them to age off the report. Mistakes, however, can be disputed in order to get it corrected.
  • Look for duplicate accounts. Accounts that are refinanced or sold can show up on the report twice. The company that sold the account should report the balance as paid and closed and the new owner holds the current status. This is a place where errors can occur. An account in default should show the original default date, not the date the new company purchased the account. The company that sold the account should no longer post as delinquent because that will give you two delinquent accounts posted for the same debt. Even current accounts that are sold can be reported incorrectly.
  • Verify both open and closed accounts. Accounts stay on the report of decades. The loan for your first car out of college may still be listed on your report, but will only include minimum information. The payment record will not impact your score, but the long history could help. Account activity beyond 7 years is generally not reported.
  • Public Information Reported On Your File. This might include information from public records such as a bankruptcy, judgment, or tax lien. Verify the information for accuracy. Bankruptcies are listed on your file for 10 years and a default remains 7 years from the default date. Payment for these accounts will not typically impact your credit score unless you negotiate their removal with the payoff agreement.
  • Hard and Soft Hits. When a third party views your credit file it will be listed on the report. Hard hits are applications you submitted. This could be from a landlord, a cell phone company or a loan application. They remain on your report for 2 years and a lot of applications will lower your score. Soft hits do not impact your credit score and are conducted by companies who are considering a credit offer.

Inaccurate information can be disputed electronically at the end of the report. Once the dispute has been filed, the credit bureau has 30 days to investigate your claim and will mail you the final decision along with a new report.

Your credit score is not part of the credit report. The score can be obtained from a number of credit card companies that offer free credit score tracking, or it may be purchased with your free report.

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