Credit plays a huge role in your overall financial health. Your credit determines not only whether you’ll get approved for a loan, but also your interest rate, down payments, and more. Credit reports are even used by landlords and employers—which means bad credit can keep you from getting a job or an apartment. Because credit is such a big part of your financial well-being, it’s important to make sure that your credit information is accurate. Here’s how to access your credit reports, understand what’s in them, and correct mistakes.
What is a credit report?
A credit report is an overview of loans and other debts you have or had, like car payments or credit card statements. When a lender, like a credit card company, is deciding whether to give you a loan, they check with the credit bureaus to see whether you’re likely to repay the loan. Your credit report determines whether you’ll get the loan, the interest rate, and more. For that reason, credit reports are a very important part of your financial health. You can use SixFifty’s free tool DebtReply 650 to dispute inaccurate items on your credit report.
What are credit bureaus?
Most Americans have three credit reports—one with each of the major credit bureaus (a fancy word for a company). Those bureaus are Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Credit bureaus are also called “Credit Reporting Agencies,” but they’re not government agencies—they’re private companies. Their job is to collect information about your credit history, like how much debt you have, how much money you have, and whether you pay your bills on time. Credit bureaus have a lot of influence on your life, so it’s important to understand how they work and how to communicate with them.
Can I get a free copy of my credit report?
All Americans are entitled, under federal law, to a free credit report from each of the 3 major credit bureaus every year. You can access your free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. Beware of scams and shady businesses. Many websites advertise a “free credit report” but require a credit card or some other form of payment. Other sites may sell your information. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only official website for the free reports guaranteed by federal law.
How do I read my credit report?
Each bureau’s credit report is slightly different, but they’ll all include information about you, your employment, and your payment history.
Personal information. This section includes your name, social security number, address history, and birth date. It’s important to correct any inaccuracies—even small ones, like typos. So look for misspellings of your name or past addresses that you don’t recognize. Scammers can exploit these details for identity theft or other harm to you and your credit. This section should only contain information about you. If you see any information about anyone else—including family members or your spouse—dispute it with the credit bureau.
Employment information. Some credit reports will include information about current and past employers. Make a note about anything that isn’t accurate so you can dispute it.
Payment history. This is usually the largest section of a credit report, and it’s the most important because it usually has the greatest impact on your credit score. This is the section that lenders will use the most to determine whether to extend credit to you (like loaning you money to buy a car), how much interest to charge you, and more.
The payment history section of your credit report includes:
- Accounts such as mortgages, credit cards, and other loans. This includes the limit or amount for each account, your current balance, when you pay on time and when you pay late, how long you’ve had the account, the name of the lender, and any items that are in collections.
- Public records like liens, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and any time that a court has ordered you to pay someone (in a judgment or a civil case). This can also include unpaid obligations, like tickets and fines, or overdue child support payments.
- “Inquiries” (sometimes called “hard inquiries”), when a company has accessed your credit report. This is what it means when a company says they’re going to “check” your credit, “run” your credit, etc. Simply having companies run some kinds of credit checks can negatively affect your credit, even if the company doesn’t end up lending you money, so keep that in mind before agreeing to a credit check.
What is a credit score?
An important item that isn’t included in your credit report is your credit score. Just as there are multiple credit bureaus, there are several companies that create credit scores. But the most important, by far, is FICO. FICO scores are calculated using data from your credit reports, but they can be very different from each other. Auto loans typically rely on the “FICO Auto Score 2” and “FICO Auto Score 8.” Credit card companies mostly use your “FICO Score 3,” and mortgage lenders use “FICO Score 2.”
You may be able to access your FICO Scores by creating accounts with the major credit bureaus, or through 3rd parties. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau directs consumers to myFICO, but it’s a paid service and is not affiliated with the government. Credit scores are not freely available to you by law like your credit reports are. The best way to take action and improve your scores is to ensure that your reports are accurate, and to dispute and correct inaccurate items on your credit report.
What does it mean to dispute something on my credit report?
If you don’t think something on your credit report is accurate, you can dispute it. “Disputing” just means telling the credit bureau that you don’t agree with the item. Some experts recommend providing documentation along with your dispute. SixFifty’s free tool, DebtReply 650, doesn’t ask for evidence. Instead, our tool encourages users to dispute any inaccurate items. If the credit bureau or the company on the credit report disagrees with that dispute, they need to provide their own evidence. In other words, the “burden” to prove whether the debt is accurate is on the company who put the item on your credit report to begin with.
With DebtReply 650, you only need to choose between two options.
- Not my debt. Choose this type of dispute if you don’t recognize the debt, or if you have any other reason to believe that the debt isn’t yours.
- Inaccurate information. Choose this type of dispute if you believe that anything about the debt is inaccurate. For example: an item on your credit report says you got a $500 loan from ABC Bank on June 30, 2023. You may recognize the amount, but not the name of the bank. Or maybe the date seems wrong to you. Every aspect of every item on your credit report should be exactly correct, and if it isn’t then you have the right to have it corrected or removed.
How do I dispute an item on my credit report?
SixFifty’s free tool DebtReply 650 makes it very easy to dispute items on your credit report. Simply download your credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, launch DebtReply 650, answer questions about your credit report, then generate and mail your dispute letter(s).
You can also dispute items on your credit report online, by mail, or over the phone. Here’s the contact information for each of the 3 major U.S. credit bureaus.
Equifax Information Services LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30348
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
What happens next?
In both kinds of disputes, the credit bureau will contact the company who claims you owe the debt. The company will then need to prove that the debt is yours and the information is accurate. If they can’t prove this, the credit bureau will often remove the item from your credit report, which can improve your credit score and make it easier for you to access loans, lower rates, etc.
If the company can prove that the debt is yours, but you still believe it’s not, you can follow up with the credit bureau and provide any evidence you may have. But you don’t need to do this step unless the company provides evidence first.
SixFifty can help!
Credit reports provide an overview of your credit history and debts. You can get a free copy of your credit reports every year from these bureaus through an official website, AnnualCreditReport.com. Since credit reports have such a large impact on your financial wellbeing, it’s important to correct inaccuracies. Disputing inaccurate items on a credit report involves informing the credit bureau about the disagreement and providing documentation if necessary. DebtReply 650 offers an easy way to dispute items, but other methods include online, mail, or phone disputes.
DebtReply 650 is just one of many free tools provided to individuals by SixFifty. We also provide support for people looking to avoid eviction, write a will, change their name or correct their gender marker, contact a company that has wronged you, and more. Check out our other Pro Bono tools in our Free Legal Aid Library!