How do I read my credit report?
You finally get a copy of your credit report with Equifax, Experian, Innovis, TransUnion or one of the many smaller credit bureaus, but when you look at it you're hit with a wall of information that you can't possibly understand. This is the situation many of our potential clients find themselves in, and it's understandable. Credit reports are hard for laypersons to understand. And that is no accident. So how do you read your credit report?
Unfortunately, we can't give you a simple step-by-step guide to reading your credit report. Equifax, Experian, Innovis, and TransUnion all have different structures for their credit reports. Your Equifax credit report may put a list of all phone numbers associated with you at the bottom of the report, while your Experian credit report may show your phone numbers at the very top. To add even more complexity, even from a single credit bureau, you can find credit reports that come in a variety of formats. A TransUnion credit report you obtain from annualcreditreport.com may look very different from one obtained from myfico.com.
Just because credit reports come in many formats, that doesn't mean there aren't some common themes. Here, we'll break down the common elements you'll find on almost all credit reports, and a primer on how to understand them.
Normally located at the top of your report, this section lists all names a credit bureau associates with you. Many people find variants of their names on their credit reports. You may see that your middle initial is wrong on your credit report, or that your last name is spelled incorrectly. You may even see a host of names that don't belong to you.
This section of your credit report contains a list of all addresses a credit bureau associates with you. It is common for people to see multiple “versions” of their address appearing on their credit report. For example, you may see that your apartment is showing up twice on your credit report, and the second listing doesn't show your apartment number or it is missing your street number.
- Phone Numbers
This section of your credit report contains a list of all phone numbers a credit bureau associates with you. As with addresses and names, it is common for people to find inaccurate phone numbers appearing on their credit reports. It may be that the number reporting is one number off, or two numbers are flipped, or even that the area code is incorrect. These may be simple mistakes, or they can be a sign that there are more serious problems in your credit file.
- Social Security Numbers
You might expect that you would only ever find one Social Security Number appearing on your credit report. After all, who has two Social Security Numbers? Particularly in cases where you have been mixed by the credit bureaus with another consumer, you may find that you have Social Security Number “variations” on your credit report. When a credit report shows that there are variations of your Social Security Number, it is almost always a strong indication that the credit bureau isn't sure exactly who you are. Bottom line? Variations of Social Security Numbers are big red flags signalling that you should read the rest of your report very carefully because you are likely to find other errors.
- Employer or Employment History
Here is a list of all employers a credit bureau associates with you. This is a particularly important area of your report to pay attention to if you believe you are the victim of identity theft. An identity thief may have needed to list an employer on a credit card application, and if the application is approved, false employment information could find its way onto your credit report.
This is by far the most complicated section of a credit report. The account tradelines section will list all credit accounts that the credit bureau associates with you. That includes credit cards, mortgages, car loans, student loans, personal loans, etc. It does not include checking and savings accounts, as these are not credit accounts.
You may be wondering “what is a tradeline?” Simply put, it is just another word for a credit account. Each car loan you have will be a separate tradeline on your credit report, as will each credit card account. Student loans are more complicated, and frequently appear as multiple tradelines.
Underneath each tradeline, you will find information associated with that account. For example, you can see the account number or partial account number (normally), the date the account was opened, the date its balance was updated, the status (open, closed, etc.), and generally even payment and balance histories. Not all credit reports will go into so much detail as to include a list of your balance each month; some will just have a green square in a grid for months that you paid your bill, and a red square for months where you missed a payment or were late in making one.
As you may imagine, it is possible that you will find any number of errors in this section of your credit report. You may find that there are accounts appearing on your credit report that don't belong to you, or that you are being listed as having made late payments for an account that you always paid on time. These errors could be the result of identity theft, or your file being mixed with another consumer, or even the product of an error by the companyreporting the information to the credit bureau (in the credit world, these companies, usually creditors, are called “furnishers.”
- “Hard” inquiries
As credit scores became increasingly popular, a rumor spread that by checking your credit report you were creating a hard inquiry which would reduce your credit score. This isn't true. Generally speaking, “hard” inquiries are a record of every time a prospective lender checks your credit in response to your application for credit. If you apply for a Wells Fargo credit card, you'll see a Wells Fargo hard inquiry appear on your credit report. It's worth noting that those looking to apply for a car loan can expect to see multiple hard inquiries appear on their credit report as the car dealership shops around for the best rates in your name. This is a problematic (and often illegal) practice which is a topic we will address in a future article.
- “Soft” inquiries
Soft inquiries don't hurt your credit score, and are merely a record of who, other than a company to which you have applied for credit, has viewed some or all of your credit file recently. There are three main reasons you will see a soft inquiry appear on your credit report.
You may notice that there are inquiries on your credit report from companies with which you have never done business. This is because your credit information can be sold to potential creditors without your knowledge. For example, assume Discover wants to offer a new credit card to any Long Island resident with a credit score over 700. Discover can contact Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, and buy credit information of everyone who meets that criteria.
The last major type of soft inquiry is an “account review” inquiry. You may, for example, find that Amex, with which you have an account in good standing, has reviewed your credit 20 times last year. Odds are, that is because Amex is checking your credit to see if you are still making payments on your other accounts. If Amex see that you are falling behind (whether that reporting is true or not), it may cancel your card or raise your interest rate.
There are two points to keep in mind when considering your soft inquiries. The first is to remind yourself that they aren't hurting your credit score. Secondly, just because a soft inquiry doesn't hurt your credit score, that doesn't mean it isn't doing any damage. If your credit score is low because of inaccurate information, credit bureaus like Equifax, Experian, and Transunion may be telling potential lenders that you have poor credit, and you may miss out on a great credit opportunity. The bureaus are also selling your data, making money at your expense, and spreading your information around to other companies, all of which can be hacked. In a very real sense, soft inquiries can represent a serious threat to your privacy and harm your reputation for creditworthiness.
Credit reports are very complicated. Each piece of your credit report connects to the others in complex and nuanced ways. An experienced credit lawyer may be able to spot trends in the errors appearing on your credit reports. Whether you choose to contact an attorney or not, we hope this overview gives you a good guide as you go about understanding your credit report.