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Making Sense of Credit Scores Once and For All

February 21st, 2017 · Credit Repair

Making Sense of Credit Scores Once and For AllThere’s a lot of mystery behind the three-digit number we call our credit score. How is it calculated? Where do we find it? How do we improve it? And if we have more than one, which one matters most? It’s time to clear up the confusion and make sense of credit scores once and for all.

Difference between credit scores and credit reports

A common misconception is that credit scores and credit reports are the same thing. While they are related – and both are used to evaluate creditworthiness – they are two separate credit rating tools:

  • Credit reports are documents of your credit history. They list who your creditors are and your history with those accounts (e.g., when they were opened, your credit limit, your balance, timeliness of payments, collections, charge-offs, etc.)
  • Credit scores are three-digit numbers based on the information in your credit reports

How credit scores are helpful

While credit reports offer a good way of delving into the details of someone’s credit history, used alone they aren’t the best means of determining creditworthiness. Thus, the importance of credit scores.

As stated on myFICO.com:

“Credit scores give lenders a fast, objective measurement of your credit risk. Before the use of scoring, the credit granting process could be slow, inconsistent and unfairly biased…”

FICO says credit scores help:

  • Loans get approved faster
  • Make credit decisions fairer
  • Minimize the importance of negative credit listings (the older they are, the less impact they have on a credit score)
  • Make more credit available, and with lower interest rates, because creditors are able to make faster, smarter lending decisions to borrowers more likely to be good credit risks

How credit scores are generated

The big three national credit bureaus – TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax – generate credit scores. However, each of these scores may be unique from the other for a couple of different reasons:

  • Credit scores are based on the credit reports compiled by each of the three credit bureaus. And each of these reports could contain different information from what’s in the other two reports. Why? Because data furnishers (credit card companies, mortgage lenders, auto financers, etc.) who report information about you get to choose which bureau they report to. So with the possibility for three different credit reports, you have the same possibility for three different credit scores.
  • Credit bureaus use different scoring models to generate credit reports. That’s why you can have a FICO Score from one credit bureau that is different from the same bureau’s VantageScore. Add to that industry-specific credit score versions and you have several scores that can affect your creditworthiness.

Credit score scale

Lenders have their own internal requirements for judging creditworthiness, but in general here’s how credit scores stack up:

  • 750-850 – Excellent credit
  • 650-749 – Good/Fair credit
  • 600-649 – Poor credit
  • 300-599 – Bad credit

This is based on the 300-850 credit score range used in both the FICO and VantageScore models.

Types of credit scores

FICO Score

What determines a FICO Score

As outlined on myFICO.com, the FICO Score algorithm is based on:

  • Payment history – 35 percent
    • With credit card companies, retail accounts, installment loans, finance company accounts, mortgage loans
    • Late payments, including how late, how much owed, how recent, and how many
    • Accounts that have been turned over to collection agencies
    • Public records, including bankruptcies, foreclosures, lawsuits, wage garnishments, liens, and judgments
  • Amounts owed – 30 percent
    • How much owed on all accounts
    • How much owed on different types of accounts
    • Credit utilization ratio on revolving accounts
    • How many accounts have balances
    • How much still owed on installment accounts
  • Length of credit history – 15 percent
    • When credit accounts were established (e.g., oldest account, newest account)
    • Average age of all accounts
    • How long since last used specific accounts
  • Credit mix – 10 percent
    • With credit card companies, retail accounts, installment loans, finances companies, mortgage loans
    • Types of credit (i.e., revolving credit and installment loans)
    • How many types
  • New credit – 10 percent
    • Number of new accounts
    • Number of recent inquiries
    • How long since last inquiries
    • How long since opened a new account
    • How long it’s been since you had credit problems (if ever)

Note, these are base percentages that can vary from one consumer to another. For instance, the shorter someone’s credit history, the more emphasis the credit scoring algorithm may place on other categories.

FICO Score versions

Newest: FICO Score 9, Auto Score 9, Bankcard Score 9

Most widely used: FICO Score 8

FICO Scores used by credit bureaus:

TransUnion

Base FICO Score 8

Industry-specific:

  • Auto loans
    • Auto Score 8
    • Auto Score 4
  • Credit cards
    • Bankcard Score 8
    • Bankcard Score 4
  • Mortgage
    • FICO Score 4

Experian

Base FICO Score 8

Industry-specific:

  • Auto loans
    • Auto Score 8
    • Auto Score 2
  • Credit cards
    • Bankcard Score 8
    • Bankcard Score 2
    • FICO Score 3
  • Mortgage
    • FICO Score 2

Equifax

Base FICO Score 8

Industry-specific:

  • Auto loans
    • Auto Score 8
    • Auto Score 5
  • Credit cards
    • Bankcard Score 8
    • Bankcard Score 5
  • Mortgage
    • FICO Score 5

Note, the versions used will vary from lender to lender. But FICO says you shouldn’t expect too wide a range of difference among scores. If you have a high base FICO Score, you should expect to have a high Auto Score or Bankcard Score.

Score ranges

Base FICO Score: 300-850

Auto Score and Bankcard Scores: 250-900

VantageScore

What determines a VantageScore

Unlike FICO, VantageScore does not break down the importance of each category into percentages, but by a general level of influence:

  • Payment history – Extremely influential
  • Percent of credit limits used – Highly influential
  • Age and type of credit – Highly influential
  • Total balances/debt – Moderately influential
  • Recent credit behavior and inquiries – Less influential
  • Available credit – Less influential

Score versions

VantageScore 3.0

Score ranges

VantageScore 3.0: 300-850

Older VantageScore Versions: 501-990

What’s not included in a credit score

If it doesn’t appear on your credit report, it doesn’t affect your credit score, including:

  • Income or net worth
  • Unemployment
  • Your spouse’s credit history
  • Criminal records
  • Medical records (though unpaid medical debts can appear on reports and affect your score)
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Political party affiliation

And though the following do appear on your credit report, they do not influence your credit score: how old you are, where you live, or who you work for.

Which credit score lenders use

First and foremost, the score lenders see will depend on which credit bureau they check (the score for which depends on what information about you is in that bureau’s credit report). Also, all three credit bureaus generate both FICO and VantageScores, either of which could be used by a lender.

Which credit scoring model: FICO vs. VantageScore

FICO says 90 percent of the top lenders use FICO when making lending decisions. But VantageScore cites its own set of impressive statistics:

  • More than 8 billion VantageScores used in a 12-month period 2015-2016
  • Over 2,400 lenders (and other industry participants) using VantageScores from July 2015 to June 2016

So, while FICO Scores are the most universally used, VantageScores get checked, too.

Which credit scoring version

If creditors are checking your FICO Score, the version they use will depend the type of credit they may be extending to you:

  • If you’re applying for a mortgage, expect lenders to look at base FICO Scores
  • If you’re applying for a credit card, expect issuers to look at Bankcard Scores
  • If you’re applying for an auto loan, expect lenders to look at Auto Scores
  • If you’re applying for personal loans, student loans, retail credit, or other types of credit, expect lenders to look at base FICO Scores

If creditors are checking your VantageScore, they’ll be seeing the most recent version – VantageScore 3.0 – which is used by all three credit bureaus. Like FICO, VantageScore generates industry-specific scores as well.

Who can see your credit scores

With the exception of potential employers, the same people who check credit reports can also check credit scores:

  • Credit cards companies
  • Landlords
  • Insurance companies
  • Utility companies
  • Government agencies

Your application for credit or services through these entities implies consent. As for employers, they can only view your credit reports with written consent.

Of course, you can see your own credit scores, too.

How often you should check credit scores

At least once a year

Much like your credit reports, it’s a good idea to check your credit scores at least once a year. That said, you’re entitled to see your credit reports for free every 12 months. The same is not true of your credit scores. You can see them for free under certain circumstances and with certain services, but there is no law requiring as much, meaning you could have to pay for certain scores.

Before you apply for credit

In addition to whatever regular monitoring you do of your credit scores – whether you pay for them once a year or monitor them all year long through a free credit monitoring service – it’s a good idea to check them right before you apply for credit.

Credit reports and the scores they generate change all the time. So the score you checked 6 months ago could look a lot different today:

  • If it’s worse than you thought, you might think twice about applying for credit right away and focus instead on credit repair. Otherwise you could be looking at higher interest rates, higher deposit requirements (if applicable), and even the possibility of not qualifying for credit at all.
  • If your credit score is better than you thought, you’ll know you could qualify for even better terms than you had expected and you can shop around accordingly.

For example, if you’re in the market for a new credit card, you can check credit card comparison sites to find cards for certain types of credit (e.g., Excellent, Fair, Bad). By checking your credit score first, you’ll know which category your credit falls into and you can apply accordingly.

Where to get your credit scores

Until legislation passes entitling you to see your credit score for free every year (the same way you can your credit report), here’s what you have to do to see it.

To see your FICO Score:

  • Pay for it through myFICO.com or through the individual credit bureaus
  • Look for it on your credit card statement (many credit card issuers include them there now as a customer service)

To see your VantageScore:

  • Pay for it through the credit bureaus; the VantageScore website directs consumers to TransUnion and Experian (Experian’s offer is the most straightforward, charging $7.95 to see your score)
  • Sign up through free credit monitoring sites for regular access to your credit scores (and reports)

When you receive credit score notices

Without having to request them at all (for free or paid), you may see your credit score when you receive certain notices relative to applications for credit:

  • Adverse action notice. If a creditor turns you down for credit based on a credit score, they must include the credit score in the adverse action notice they are required by law to send you.
  • Risk-based pricing notice. If a creditor gives you worse terms based a credit score, they must include the credit score in the risk-based pricing notice they are required by law to send you.

Understanding reason codes

When you receive your credit score, you may notice two-digit or text-based reason codes that come along with it. These are codes that correspond to reasons your credit score is not higher (not to be confused with the reasons you were denied credit or didn’t receive the best interest rate). To make sense of these reason codes, use ReasonCode.org for quick translations.

How to improve credit scores

You need not have bad credit to aspire to a better credit score. Because the better it is, the better credit terms you’ll qualify for in the future.

Credit disputes

Errors on your credit reports could be dragging down your credit score (e.g., late payments listings you thought you paid on time, wrong credit limits, wrong account balances, accounts you do not recognize). Here’s how credit disputes work:

  • Request your credit reports (through com or free credit monitoring sites)
  • Look for errors on your reports
  • Dispute errors with the credit bureaus
  • Dispute with original creditors or collection agencies, need be

If the data furnishers of a listing cannot prove the accuracy, the credit bureaus must correct the disputed listing.

Debt validation

Collection accounts on your credit reports drag down your credit score. Paying them off may end up being your best option, but try debt validation first.

Within 30 days of receiving the initial notice from a debt collector, request debt validation. Through this process, they must prove that 1) the debt actually exists, 2) you are the one who owes it, 3) and they have the right to collect on it. If they do not provide such validation, the credit bureaus must remove the listing.

Debt settlement

For collection accounts that are not removed via debt validation, try settling for less than you owe. If the statute of limitations has passed, you have a particularly good opportunity for negotiating a better deal since you are no longer required to pay it (but may want to as it can stay on your credit reports up to 7 years). Just be sure to pay for delete, meaning that once you pay, they will remove the listing.

Get the facts on DIY debt settlement.

Other ways to improve your credit score

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to monitor your credit regularly. The sooner you catch errors or signs of identity theft, the more you can minimize the damage.

So when you get right down to it, what matters most about your credit isn’t your credit score. What matters most is your credit behavior. Get that right and your credit score will fall into place.

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Guide to Credit Reports: 11 Things Simply Explained

February 14th, 2017 · Credit Reports

Guide to Credit Reports: 11 Things Simply ExplainedWhether your credit is good or bad all depends on what’s on your credit reports. So of all the things you can do to improve your creditworthiness, understanding credit reports ranks pretty high on the list. Maybe that sounds boring to you. Or intimidating. But the truth is, it’s neither. Actually, it’s pretty interesting how credit reports work and a lot easier to understand than you might think.

1) What credit report means

A credit report is a record of your credit history that begins when you open your first credit account. The volume and nature of information on a credit report depends on a couple of things – how much credit you’ve applied for and received, and how well you have paid your debts.

2) What’s on a credit report

The type of information that could be on a credit report includes:

  • Personally-identifying information
    • Name(s) – This may be plural depending on variations on your name that you have used when applying for credit. For instance, Jane Doe, Jane M. Doe, Jane Mary Doe.
    • Addresses – Current and previous. This may not be an exhaustive list, as this only represents addresses reported to the bureaus.
    • Employers – As with addresses, this may not be an exhaustive list, as this only represents employers reported to the bureaus.
  • List of your credit accounts, including account details:
    • Account type
    • Date opened
    • Credit limit or loan amount
    • Balance
    • Monthly payment
    • Date of last payment
    • Date of last activity
    • Date closed
  • Credit inquiries
  • Collection accounts
  • Public records, (e.g., judgments, foreclosures, liens)
  • Personal statements (You will only have these if you have submitted a statement to the credit bureau. Learn the pros and cons of submitting a 100-word statement.)

What a credit report does not include is your credit score, which is a separate credit rating tool. That said, the two are not unrelated. An algorithm is used to turn the information on your credit report into a three-digit credit score.

Besides the exclusion of your credit score, a credit report also does not include:

  • Income or net worth
  • Unemployment
  • Your spouse’s credit history
  • Criminal records
  • Medical records
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Political party affiliation

Note, although medical records will not show up in your credit reports, unpaid medical debt could show up in collections.

3) Where they come from

Credit reports are generated by the credit bureaus.

There are many consumer reporting agencies, but it’s the big three national credit bureaus that matter most – TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.

Each of the three national credit bureaus has its own credit report on file for you. These reports are compiled using information provided to them by data furnishers.

Data furnishers include credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, auto lenders, and other creditors through which you’ve taken out loans. If you’ve fallen behind on some bills, you may also see listings from cell phone companies, utility companies, doctors, and hospitals (i.e., data furnishers who only report when they have something negative to put on your record).

Find out how credit bureaus work (including how to make them work for you).

4) Why they matter

When you apply for credit, it’s your credit reports that have the most influence over whether you get it or not, and under what terms. Yes, your credit score matters. But remember, that’s just a numeric interpretation of what your credit report says. What matters most is the source – your credit report.

And keep in mind, it’s not just potential creditors that look at your credit reports and scores. They’re also used by landlords, insurance companies, rental car companies, and even employers in some cases.

That means what’s on your credit reports can influence:

  • Loan approvals
  • Interest rates
  • Credit limits
  • Deposit requirements
  • Auto insurance premiums
  • Whether you get a job (if a credit check is required)
  • Whether you’re approved for a house or apartment rental

So it’s not just your ability to get credit that’s affected by your credit reports. It’s how much you pay for it, too. Take financing a car, for example. Your credit not only affects whether you get the loan, but the deposit you’re required to make, the interest rate you get, and what you pay in auto insurance premiums.

What's On Credit Reports and What's Not5) How credit reports are organized

Though all three bureaus include essentially the same type of information, the way they organize their credit reports varies slightly. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from each of the big three.

TransUnion credit report format

  • Date report was created
  • File number
  • Personal information
    • Social security number (all but the last four digits masked for your protection)
    • Names reported
    • Addresses reported (and dates these addresses were reported)
    • Telephone numbers reported
    • Employment data reported (and dates this employment was verified)
  • Public records
  • Account information
  • Adverse accounts
  • Promotional inquiries
  • Account review inquiries
  • Summary of your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

Experian credit report format

  • Name
  • Report number
  • Date report was created
  • Personal information
    • Names associated with your credit (along with name identification numbers that correspond to the account that name is associated with)
    • Addresses associated with your credit (along with address identification numbers that correspond to the account that name is associated with, residence type, and geographical code)
    • Year of birth
    • Spouse or co-applicant (if applicable)
    • Phone numbers
    • Current or former employers
  • Your personal statements (if applicable)
  • Potentially negative items
  • Accounts in good standing
  • Credit inquiries
    • Inquires shared with others
    • Inquiries shared only with you
  • Contact and dispute file information
  • Summary of your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

Equifax credit report format

  • Name
  • Date report created
  • Report confirmation number
  • Report summary
    • Report date
    • Credit file status (indicates if fraud alert is on file)
    • Alert contacts
    • Average account age
    • Oldest account
    • Credit accounts
    • Other items
  • Revolving accounts (e.g., credit cards)
  • Mortgage accounts
  • Installment accounts
  • Other accounts (that do not fall into the categories above)
  • Consumer statements (if applicable)
  • Personal information
    • Name
    • Social security number
    • Date of birth
    • Alert contact information
    • Contact information (i.e., your current and previous addresses, including dates reported)
    • Employment history, including company name, occupation, start date, status, and location
  • Inquiries
  • Public records
    • Bankruptcies
    • Judgments
    • Liens
  • Collections
  • Dispute file information
  • Summary of your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

Get tips on interpreting your credit reports.

6) Who can see them

Your credit reports are not public records that anyone can access. On the contrary, they are protected by law and only made accessible to people with permissible purpose.

Expect a check of your credit report when you submit applications to:

  • Credit card companies
  • Landlords
  • Insurance companies
  • Utility companies
  • Government agencies
  • Potential employers (in some cases)

And anyone else to whom you give written consent can also access your credit reports. This includes the permission you give to services that monitor your credit (e.g., Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, WalletHub). Court orders and subpoenas can also give people access to your credit reports.

Last but not least, you can look at your credit reports, which you should do at least once a year.

7) How to get them

AnnualCreditReport.com

Every 12 months, you are entitled to see your credit reports for free – from TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax – through AnnualCreditReport.com.

When you visit this website, you’ll be asked to provide personally-identifying information, including your name, social security number, current address, and previous address if you have lived at your current address less than 2 years.

To further verify that it is, indeed, you requesting your credit reports, you’ll be asked additional information to verify your identity. For instance, you may be shown a list of employers or addresses and asked to choose the one you are (or have been) associated with.

Once your identity is verified, you will be shown the first of three credit reports. To see this report, you will be forwarded to the associated credit bureau website. After you have finished reviewing the first report, you will be asked to return to AnnualCreditReport.com so you can move on to the second report. Before you do, save or print that first report first.

After returning to AnnualCreditReport.com, you will be asked to view your second credit report. Again, you will be forwarded to the associated credit bureau website. You’ll follow the same process until you have viewed all three credit reports.

Again, be sure to save or print your reports before logging out of the credit bureau sites.

When you’re turned down for credit

If you apply for credit and don’t get it, you deserve an explanation. That’s why this situation entitles you to see (for free) the credit report that the decision was based on. In the same notification that turns you down for the credit, you should receive instructions on how to request your free credit report (and from which credit bureau).

Correcting a disputed listing

When you dispute something on a credit report – and the credit bureau tells you they are going to correct the information – you deserve proof that it gets done. That’s why this situation also entitles you to a see (for free) the credit report, so you can be sure it reflects the correction.

Free credit monitoring sites

You can monitor the information on your credit reports all year long through free credit monitoring sites like Credit Karma, Credit.com, Credit Sesame, WalletHub, and Quizzle. These sites also give you access to the VantageScores generated by your credit reports.

Credit bureaus

You can pay for access to your credit reports directly through TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Beware of free trial offers, as you will have to remember to cancel the service or be charged a monthly fee.

8) Which ones you need to see

You need to see all three national credit reports – from TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. That’s because you can never assume that all of them are the same.

Creditors are not required to report the same information to all three bureaus. So, what’s on your TransUnion report for instance, may not be on your Experian or Equifax report. At the same time, you never know which bureau a creditor is going to use when considering you for credit in the future.

9) Using your credit reports for credit repair

If you have bad credit, you need not pay an expensive credit repair company to help you fix it. Instead, you can go straight to the source – your credit report – and start cleaning up your credit yourself.

Dispute errors

Though there is nothing a credit repair company can do for you that you cannot do for yourself, many people choose to use them anyway. If you are considering the same, beware these credit repair company red flags. And be sure to consider DIY credit repair first.

Request debt validation

  • Look for collections on your credit reports.
  • If it’s been less than 30 days since you received the initial communication from the collector, request debt validation. If they cannot provide this, the listing must be removed.
  • If they respond to your request with debt validation, but you believe something about the collection account is incorrect, dispute the listing.
  • If they respond to your request with debt validation, and you know the collection account is accurate, check the statute of limitations. Though the details of the debt may be correct, you may no longer be required by law to pay it. That said, it can stay on your credit report for up to 7 years, so if that’s still a long way off, you may want to pay it anyway.

Negotiate debt settlement

Before you pay a dime to a debt collector, try to settle for less than you owe. The older the debt, the better your chances for striking a deal. This is especially true if the debt has passed the statute of limitations. This buys you plenty of time to negotiate for less. Best of all, you need not pay a debt settlement company to do it for you. Learn how to DIY.

When Negative Listings Fall Off Credit Reports10) When negative listings fall off credit reports

The number of years it takes for negative listings to fall off your credit reports varies:

  • 2 years for credit inquiries (though hard inquiries only affect your credit score up to 12 months and soft inquiries not at all)
  • 7 years for:
    • Late payments
    • Charge-offs
    • Collection accounts (plus 180 days)
    • Foreclosures
    • Judgments (with exceptions)
    • Paid tax liens (if unpaid they can stay on indefinitely)
  • 10 years for bankruptcies

Of course, these timelines are only relevant to accurate listings. If you can use the dispute process to prove any of these are in error, negative listings may be removed immediately.

11) Using them to detect identity theft

If you see a credit account on your credit reports that you do not recognize, it could be a sign of identity theft. So the more often you check your credit reports the better, as the sooner you detect a problem, the more easily you can minimize the damage.

Should you suspect identity theft, follow these steps, which includes immediately notifying the credit bureaus; they can place a fraud alert on your credit reports.

And there you have it – the nuts and bolts of credit reports to help you go from bad credit to good, good credit to excellent, or to maintain the great credit you already have.

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How Credit Bureaus Work (and How to Make Them Work for You)

February 7th, 2017 · Credit Bureaus and Scores

How Credit Bureaus Work (and How to Make Them Work for You)Considering how much power the credit bureaus have over your creditworthiness, you need to know how they work. Because the more you know about how they work, the more you’ll know about how to build a better credit score. So get the facts on the big three national credit bureaus – TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.

1) Credit bureaus collect information about you

The credit bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies, start collecting information about you when you open your first credit account. That’s when they receive your personally-identifying information, including your name, address, date of birth, social security number, and employer, as well as information specific to your first credit line.

From that point on, there are few different ways credit bureaus will continue to collect information about you:

  • When you apply for credit and the creditor checks your credit. The credit bureaus call this a “hard inquiry” made by a potential creditor.
  • When you request a look at your own credit. The credit bureaus call this a “soft inquiry.”
  • When you open a new line of credit. The creditor will share with the credit bureaus the personally-identifying information you provided to them, which may update your current address and employer if they have changed since the last time you applied for credit. Of course, they will also collect information specific to your new credit line.
  • When you notify an existing creditor of a new address or name change. You can expect them to provide that information to the credit bureaus the next time they update your reports.
  • When data furnishers (e.g., credit card issuers, auto lenders, mortgage lenders, etc.) report your payment history to the bureaus. This information includes:
    • Your credit limit or loan amount
    • How much you owe
    • The date and amount of your last payment
    • Any past due amounts and late payments
    • Whether accounts have been charged off
  • When utility companies, cell phone companies, doctors, and hospitals report past due payments. Note, these are data furnishers who only report to the credit bureaus when something is wrong. So provided you keep bills like these current, they will have no reason to report anything to the bureaus at all.
  • When you have new accounts opened by collection agencies collecting on old debts.
  • When the credit bureaus look through any public records on you, making note of foreclosures, wage garnishments, tax liens, and bankruptcies.

2) They compile information about you into credit reports

All the information collected by credit reporting agencies gets compiled into credit reports. Potential creditors look at these to judge your creditworthiness.

The credit information on your credit reports is broken down into sections, including:

  • Identifying information
  • Credit accounts
  • Credit inquiries
  • Public records
  • Collection items

You never know which credit bureau a creditor is going to use to (a) check your credit or (b) report your payment history. That means your credit reports from all three major bureaus may contain different sets of information.

3) They turn your credit reports into credit scores

This gives creditors a three-digit number they can use to easily judge your creditworthiness. Of course, since every credit bureau may have a different set of information about you, the generated scores may be different, too.

Plus, the same credit report generates two different types of scores:

  • FICO Score, which is the most widely used by creditors when making lending decisions
  • VantageScore, which was created to compete with the FICO Score

That said, FICO has multiple credit scores of its own. There is the general FICO Score, but also industry-specific scores for lenders to use when making decisions about extending credit for credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages.

Take a look at credit score ranges.

4) Credit bureaus provide access to your credit reports and scores

The credit bureaus sell your credit information to anyone with “permissible purpose” (e.g., lenders, landlords, insurance companies, utility companies, etc). You too can (and should) look at your credit reports and scores regularly to confirm accuracy. (And since each credit report may contain a different set of information, it’s important to check all three.)

Every credit bureau is required by law to provide you with one free credit report per year, which you can request through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also see the information on your credit reports through free credit monitoring sites. Beyond that, you can purchase your credit reports any time you like through each of the credit bureaus.

Get tips on reading your credit reports.

Unfortunately, the law does not require you to receive free access to your credit scores.

For your FICO Score, check your credit card statement. Many credit card issuers now include FICO Scores there. Beyond that, you can purchase your FICO Scores – from all three credit bureaus – through myFICO.com.

For your VantageScore, the same free credit monitoring sites that give you credit report information for free will provide you with updated VantageScores, too. While lenders may not rely on them as much as FICO Scores, keeping an eye on your VantageScore will at least give you a good idea of where your credit generally stands and how it is improving (or tanking) depending on your credit behavior.

 

5) They help creditors prescreen consumers for credit card offers

You know those “preapproved” offers you get for credit cards? It’s with the help of the credit reporting agencies that creditors are able to make these prescreened offers. Credit card issuers are looking for consumers who meet certain criteria. The bureaus search their database for those who qualify, or they qualify the names of consumers that the credit card issuers provide to them.

On the one hand, this can be a good way of seeing the kind of credit limits and interest rates you might qualify for – a helpful comparison tool when shopping around for a new credit card.

On the other hand, preapproved credit card offers don’t always represent the best deals. Plus, they can open you up to having your identity stolen if a thief gets a hold of the offer.

Fortunately, you have a choice. If you’d rather not receive prescreened credit card offers, you can opt out through the credit bureaus. Here’s how to opt out (or opt back in), which you can do for 5 years or permanently.

Send credit disputes to credit bureaus via regular certified mail.6) They investigate consumer disputes

If you discover an error on your credit reports, you have the right to send a credit dispute (with supporting documentation) to the appropriate credit bureau(s). There are any number of reasons why you may need to dispute something on your credit reports, like a:

  • Misspelled name
  • Credit line you don’t recognize
  • Late payment for an account you know you paid on time
  • Incorrect credit limit or balance
  • Collection account for a trade line you already paid off

The credit bureau is then required by law to investigate the listing for accuracy. They do so by reaching out to the appropriate data furnisher for verification of the disputed item.

Here’s how each of the credit bureaus describes its own way of doing things:

Note, all three credit reporting agencies have online dispute options. Don’t do it. Create a paper trail by sending everything via regular certified mail with return receipt requested.

You should expect to receive a response from them within 30 to 45 days. If the credit bureau is satisfied with a data furnisher’s verification, nothing will be changed. If the data furnisher does not verify the disputed item, it should be corrected (or removed if appropriate).

If you are not happy with the result of the dispute, you can always dispute directly through the original creditor or collector. If that doesn’t work, you can submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

7) Credit bureaus can place fraud alert on credit reports

If you suspect your personal or financial information has been stolen, placing a fraud alert on your credit reports is a good way to help protect you from identity theft. You can still apply for credit – and potential creditors can still see your credit reports – but they’ll have to contact you for verification first.

In other words, a fraud alert makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.

There are three types of fraud alerts:

  • Initial fraud alert, which lasts 90 days. If you want to renew the alert after 90 days, you can.
  • Extended fraud alert, which lasts 7 years. This may be your best bet if thieves have already used your personal or financial information to steal your identity. With this option, you will also be removed from prescreened credit offers, and you will have free access to your credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com twice a year (a right you normally only get once a year).
  • Active duty military alert, which lasts 1 year. This is a good way to protect yourself when you are deployed out of the country.

Contact the credit bureaus to request a fraud alert:

Placing a fraud alert is free, but you will need to provide proof of identity. Note, you can expect the bureau you contact to notify the other two bureaus, ensuring the same alert appears on all three of your credit reports.

8) They can freeze credit reports

As helpful as a fraud alert can be – requiring creditors to contact you directly for verification before extending new credit – you can protect yourself further with a credit freeze, also known as a security freeze.

With a credit freeze, you prevent potential creditors from seeing your credit reports under any circumstances. This can be a big help in preventing identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name, as most creditors need to see your credit reports first.

Contact the credit reporting agencies to request a credit freeze:

Just keep a few things in mind:

  • This will make it difficult for you to apply for credit. To do so, you will need to request a lift on the freeze when you’re in the market for a new credit card or loan. You can also ask for the credit freeze to be removed entirely.
  • There are some people who will still be able to see your credit reports – you, existing creditors, and some government agencies under certain circumstances (e.g., court order, search warrant).
  • It takes a few days to lift a freeze, so be sure and notify the credit bureaus in advance of your need to apply for new credit.

Unlike credit alerts, credit freezes are not necessarily free. You may be able to get it for free if you meet certain criteria, but the cost is usually between $5 and $10. It depends on your state.

9) They offer credit monitoring and identity theft protection9 Things Credit Bureaus Do

All three of the credit bureaus offer consumers subscription-based services for credit monitoring and theft protection. The offering is a little different from one bureau to the next, but includes things like:

  • Providing you year-round access to your credit reports and scores
  • Alerts when there are notable changes to your credit reports
  • Locking and unlocking your credit reports
  • Lost wallet assistance
  • Internet scanning (to see if your information is being bought and sold)
  • Automatic fraud alerts
  • Identity theft insurance

But as good as all of that might sound, these monthly subscription services can be costly – money that might be better spent paying down debt or going toward savings. That’s why it’s always best to do what you can for free.

Most notably, you can keep a watchful eye on your credit reports and scores through free credit monitoring sites that give you year-round access, too. Should you see an incorrect listing or a new account that you didn’t open, you can alert the credit bureaus immediately. Read our review of the top five free credit monitoring sites – Credit Karma, Credit.com, Credit Sesame, WalletHub, and Quizzle.

At best, the credit bureaus are your credit score’s best friend, reflecting the accuracy of your good payment history and helping you correct mistakes. At worst, the credit bureaus can feel like the enemy, making it feel impossibly difficult to move past your financial missteps. Your best bet is the same in either case – getting to know the credit bureaus so you know how to make them work for you.

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