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How to read and understand your credit report

Maxine Sweet, vice president of consumer education at Experian, stresses the importance of ordering the report directly from the credit bureau instead of asking a buddy who works at a bank to pull one for you. Those are written for people who work in the credit industry. The one you get from the credit bureau is designed for consumers.

"The information is the same, but it's much more consumer friendly," she says.

Well, not quite the same. The report sent to a lender will list the credit bureau member numbers of your creditors and it won't have the complete list of every company that's pulled your credit information for promotional purposes, like pre-approved credit card offers.

"If you compared the two reports side by side, the consumer one will have a couple more pages of information," says John Ulzheimer, client support specialist for credit bureau products at Fair, Isaac and Co. Fair, Isaac is the creator of the FICO score, the widely used credit scoring model that is used to determine a person's credit risk.

Anatomy of a credit report
A credit report is basically divided into four sections: identifying information, credit history, public records, and inquiries.

Identifying information is just that -- information to identify you. Look at it closely to make sure it's accurate. It's not unusual, Sweet says, for there to be two or three spellings of your name or more than one Social Security number. That's usually because someone reported the information that way. The variations will stay on your credit report; "If it's reported wrong, we leave it because it might mess up the link. Don't be concerned about variations."

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Other information might include your current and previous addresses, your date of birth, telephone numbers, driver's license numbers, your employer and your spouse's name.

The next section is your credit history. Sometimes, the individual accounts are called trade lines.

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