By Chris Huntley
It’s smart practice to check your credit report as frequently as you can, especially if you’re struggling financially due to the coronavirus or other reasons. Trouble is, pulling your report more than once a year typically costs you $20 to $40 every time. But that's now changed. Until next spring, you’ll be able to check your credit report for free as often as every week.
For nearly twenty years, since passage of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), free reports have been available annually upon request from annualcreditreport.com, a website sponsored by the big three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The coronavirus crisis and the credit problems it’s causing have prompted the site to allow credit reports to be obtained free every week until April 2021.
Why Credit Reports Matter Now
Your credit report serves as a kind of financial resume. It lists the accounts under your name, with their original and current balances and duration and payment history. It also details whether you’ve filed for bankruptcy or ever had debts sent to collection.
The report also serves as a financial-management tool. It helps you analyze and better understand which debts you should prioritize, and which lenders you should contact first to evaluate your options.
That can be useful and empowering if, say, you’re straining to pay credit-card bills and want to take advantage of the willingness of card issuers to be flexible with borrowers affected by the pandemic. The report could help demonstrate that you’ve been a responsible card owner over the years, and can now be trusted to honor a new reduced-payment plan.
How to Check Your Report for Free
To get your reports, go to annualcreditreport.com, and click “Request your free credit reports.” You can choose to pull a report from just one credit bureau or all three. Choose the latter if you have time, since your information may vary among the bureaus.
For each report you request, you'll need to answer a few questions to verify your identity. Once you’ve satisfied the requirements, you'll be free to review your reports online. You can also print or download them for later use.
You could repeat these steps every week if you’re so inclined. However, credit expert John Ulzheimer thinks it's overkill to check a report that often. “But I do recommend consumers check their reports a few times per year, and that’s why I love that [the agencies] are making it free through next April.”
Indeed, the move could reduce by hundreds of dollars the cost of frequently checking your credit report. Experian charges a one-time fee of $39.99 for accessing their report, while Equifax and FICO charge a monthly fee ranging from $19.95 to $29.95 per month.
How to Find Errors in Your Report
When credit-card companies or other lenders report to the credit bureaus, Ulzheimer says it’s not the credit bureaus’ job to verify that the reported information is correct. “It’s your responsibility as the consumer to check your report for accuracy,” said Ulzheimer. “You could have errors in there [that are] dragging down your credit score, and no one but you [will] correct that.”
Indeed, a study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in five people have at least one error on one of their credit reports. According to the CFPB, or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, some of the most common errors you'll find on credit reports are:
- Accounts that belong to another person, perhaps with the same name as you
- Accounts that are incorrectly reported as late or delinquent
- Accounts that appear multiple times with different lenders
- Incorrect accounts that result from identity theft
The goofs in credit reports sometimes surprise even experts like Shanté Nicole, a Certified Credit Repair Consultant and president of Financial Common Cents. “I had a client recently who had four collections on her report that didn’t even belong to her. We disputed them and had them removed, but she never would have even known about them if she hadn’t checked her report.”
Luckily, most anomalies should be easy to spot. Begin your evaluation by reading the report overview. It should quickly alert you to any damaging information on your report such as late payments, collection activities or charge-offs.
Next, scan your report for suspicious credit accounts you don’t recognize. For example, let's say you find a Wells Fargo Dealer Services auto loan on your report, but can’t recall ever having a car loan through Wells Fargo.
As you find such inaccuracies, make a note of each, including the creditor, account number and why you think the information is problematic.
Disputing and Removing Negative Items
It’s generally fairly easy to get inaccurate negative items removed from your credit report. Here are the steps:
First, write a “debt validation” letter to the credit bureau or bureaus whose information is in error. For example, if you found an inaccuracy in your Experian report, send the letter to Experian. If you also found the same error in other bureaus’ reports, send letters to them as well.
Include in the letter your name, the account number and the creditor in question, and the nature of the errors, using the notes you’ve made. Ask the credit bureau if they can verify that the debt belongs to you. If you need help, you can use a template like this one.
When your validation letters are complete, send them via certified mail. The credit bureaus will attempt to resolve your issue promptly. However, if they are unable to do so within 30 days of receiving your letter, they must by law remove the item from your report. Sending your letters via certified mail allows you to keep track of the 30-day window within which the agencies must respond.
Credit experts suggest erring on the side of challenging any problematic information, even if your memory may be foggy. “Remember, you don’t actually know for sure that the negative items on your report are accurate,” says credit-repair specialist Shanté Nicole. “They might have misreported your balance or your dates of payments or any number of things, and one little mistake could be hurting your credit score. It’s your right to verify that everything is accurate, so I say you should take advantage of it.”
One little-known strategy for having accurate but damaging items removed is to propose a deal with the agency. You offer to pay off an unpaid bill that’s gone to collection, one of the latter stages of recovering debt, in exchange for having the item expunged from your credit history. Through what’s known as a “pay-for-delete” agreement, the collection agency removes any record of the collection from your credit report once payment is received. Just be sure to get the agreement in writing before agreeing to pay.