katleho Seisa | E+ | Getty Images
For an extra year, it’s going to be easier than ever to monitor your credit report — and check for errors.
The nation’s three largest credit reporting firms — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — said Tuesday that consumers can access their credit report through a central site up to once a week, for free, through April 2022.
This is a departure from the federally required once-a-year free look at your report, which includes a history of your financial accounts and may be used by banks and other lenders when deciding whether to give you a loan or credit card.
“This extension makes a whole lot of sense,” said John Ulzheimer, credit expert and president of the Ulzheimer Group in Atlanta. “It jibes with needing to be engaged with our credit report.”
The move by the credit reporting firms is an extension of a free once-a-week option that they initiated in April 2020. The announcement also came a day after consumer-advocacy group U.S. PIRG released a report showing that 63% of consumer complaints made to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2020 were related to errors on credit reports.
It’s worth checking for errors on your credit before you go to apply for a loan or credit to ensure all the information on the report is accurate. And if it’s not, you can take steps to correct those errors. Also, some credit reporting errors are the result of identity theft and fraud. Of course, the credit bureaus can’t know that an account doesn’t really belong to you unless you make them aware of the problem.
While these free weekly reports — which you can access at annualcreditreport.com — do not contain any credit scores, they do have an effect on those three-digit numbers (which generally range from 300 to 850). And that score factors into lending decisions — the higher it is, the more likely lenders will give you a better interest rate on a loan or line of credit.
There are some things to keep in mind when you go on the hunt for errors.
For starters, it’s worth checking your report from each of the credit bureaus.
“You don’t have one credit report,” Ulzheimer said. “You have three, and it’s highly unlikely they’d be carbon copies of each other.
“The [agencies] collaborate on some things but they do not share databases.”
Additionally, the reports generally only reflect information provided to them by other businesses — mostly financial services firms and debt collectors, Ulzheimer said.
So if there is an error on your report, it generally means the information given was inaccurate, whether due to a bank improperly reporting an account’s status or attributing someone else’s account to your record, or even due to fraud (i.e., someone opens a credit card using your personal information to do so).
Also, if you want to check your report with each credit bureau on the central site, you have to request each individually. And each time, you’ll need to provide your personal information — including name, birth date and Social Security number.
You also may need to accurately answer questions intended to verify your identity. That could include answers related to current or past employers, monthly payment amount on a loan or previous addresses.
When you look at your report, check for anything unfamiliar, Ulzheimer said.
“Just start from the top of the report and go down,” he added. “The point is to look at everything.”
It’s important to remember that what you see is based on the prior month, Ulzheimer said. In other words, you could see a balance show for an account you just paid off.
If you do see an error, you should dispute it with the credit bureau that generated the report. You can generally do this via an online form or by mail. The Federal Trade Commission, which offers a sample letter to follow, recommends sending a detailed letter and copies (not originals) of any supporting documents via certified mail with “return receipt requested.” A copy of your report with errors circled may also be included, according to the FTC.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the credit bureau then generally has 30 days (in some instances it’s 45 days) to complete an investigation into your claim. This basically means the credit bureau asks the company that provided the information to verify its accuracy.
You also should contact the entity that reported the mistake (the FTC has a sample letter you can look at). By law, both that business and the credit bureau are required to fix inaccurate entries on your credit report.
If an investigation by the credit bureau doesn’t resolve the situation, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports, according to the FTC.
Additionally, you also can ask that the statement be provided to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. However, you can expect there to be a fee for this service.