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How to read and understand your credit report

  • Whether the account is in your name alone or with another person
  • Total amount of the loan, high credit limit or highest balance on the card
  • How much you still owe
  • Fixed monthly payments or minimum monthly amount
  • Status of the account (open, inactive, closed, paid, etc.)
  • How well you've paid the account.
On Experian's report, your payment history is written in plain English -- never pays late, typically pays 30 days late, etc. Other comments might include internal collection and charged-off or default.

"Charged-off means the creditor has given up, thrown in the towel," Ulzheimer says. "He's made efforts to collect and written it off."

Other reports use payment codes ranging from 1 to 9; an R1 or I1 on a report is an indication of a good payment history on a revolving or installment account.

The next section is the part you want to be absolutely blank. The public records section "is never a good story," Sweet says. "If you have a public record on there, you've had a problem."

It doesn't list arrests and criminal activities; just financially related data, such as bankruptcies, judgments and tax liens. Those are the monsters that will trash your credit faster than anything else.

The final section is the inquiries. That's a list of everyone who asked to see your credit report.

"Any time anyone gets into the report, it'll post an inquiry," Ulzheimer says. "If you call the credit bureau and ask for a copy, it will be on there. It's a very detailed entry record. It's great for the consumer."

Inquiries are divided into two sections. "Hard" inquiries are ones you initiate by filling out a credit application or taking your child to the orthodontist. "Soft" inquiries are from companies that want to send out promotional information to a pre-qualified group or current creditors who are monitoring your account. The soft inquiries are only shown on reports given to consumers, according to Sweet.

You may have heard that a large number of inquiries can have a negative impact on your credit score, but you're probably OK.

"The vast majority of inquiries are ignored by the FICO scoring models," Ulzheimer says. "They're not the steak in the steak dinner."

For instance, the FICO scores have at least a 30-day buffer period where auto and mortgage inquiries are initially bypassed and not counted. It also counts two or more "hard" inquiries in the same 14-day period as just one inquiry.

"You could have 30 in two weeks and it only counts as one," Ulzheimer says.

If you find a mistake on your credit report -- an account that isn't yours or a disputed amount -- you'll need to fill out the form that comes with the report or follow the instructions on the explanatory sheet.

The process takes time because the creditors have 30 days to respond to a charge of a discrepancy. As long as a charge is in dispute, that dispute will show up on your report. Long-time lenders say it's common for reports to have errors. Some estimate that as many as 80 percent of all credit reports have some kind of misinformation.

Amy C. Fleitas contributed to this article.

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-- Updated: Oct. 12, 2005

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