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How, Why and When to Check (or Freeze) Your Credit Score

Monitoring your creditworthiness is key for tracking your financial health and spotting fraud

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If the idea of checking your creditworthiness makes you a little nervous, you’re not alone. A Zest/Harris Poll released in 2020 found that for more than a third of Americans, even looking up their credit score — the three-digit number evaluating your financial health — filled them with more dread than getting on a scale to check their weight. 

And nearly a third have never even examined the data in their credit report, a record of their recent financial history, according to a Harris Poll on behalf of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) released in 2021.

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But credit industry experts and consumer advocates say there’s no need to be afraid. To the contrary: These days it’s easy to check your credit score, an important number that mortgage companies, credit card issuers and others use to decide whether to lend you money. It only requires clicking a few keys on your computer and is a vital step for protecting against credit reporting mistakes or identity thieves who might saddle you with bad debts (and seriously lower your score).

The federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other experts recommend checking it at least once a year.

“We certainly encourage consumers to take regular stock of their credit standing, just as they’re encouraged to get checkups from their doctor,” says Eric J. Ellman, senior vice president for public policy and legal affairs for the Consumer Data Industry Association, a trade group that represents credit reporting companies.

Here’s a primer on credit reports, plus tips on how to check on your score.

Credit reports and credit scores: What’s the difference?

Your credit report and your credit score — sometimes referred to as a FICO score (FICO is the registered trademark of the brand that first standardized credit ratings across the industry) — are two separate things, and there are multiple versions of each.

Your credit report is “the history of how you use your financial resources, your credit arrangements and agreements,” explains Rod Griffin, senior director of public education and advocacy for Experian, which, along with Equifax and TransUnion, is one of the nation’s three main credit reporting companies.

It will contain an array of personal information, such as addresses where you’ve lived, your phone numbers and your spouse’s name if you have joint accounts. More importantly, it contains records of the loans you’ve taken out and whether you repaid them on time.

Credit score basics

  • Your credit score, a three-digit number between 300 and 850, indicates how likely you are to repay a future loan. Generally anything over 670 is considered good, while 740 and above is very good and 800 to 850 is excellent
  • Experian, Equifax and TransUnion are the nation’s three main credit reporting companies, but you can access all your credit reports through one website,
  • The federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends checking all three of them at least once every 12 months to make sure they’re accurate and complete.
  • If you see a sudden drop in your score that’s larger than a few points, it’s a signal that something may be seriously wrong.

Your credit score is calculated from that information, which is provided by your creditors. It’s in the form of a three-digit number between 300 and 850, and indicates how likely you are to repay a future loan. (Generally, anything over 670 is considered good, while 740 and above is very good, and 800 to 850 is excellent.)

Griffin compares a credit report to a paper that you write in school, while the credit score “is the grade that goes on the paper.”

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That’s the basic idea, but Griffin cautions that credit reports and scores are a bit more complicated. Businesses that give you loans don’t always submit their data to all three credit reporting agencies, so the reports that Experian, Equifax and TransUnion compile on you might not contain the exact same information. That, in turn, could result in differing credit scores.

“A consumer could check their score with all three bureaus at the same time on the same day and see three different scores,” Amy Maliga, a financial educator for Take Charge America, a nonprofit credit counseling organization, explains by email. “But they will generally be in the same range.”

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To make things even more complicated, credit card companies, mortgage lenders and car loan companies may use different specialized versions of your credit score. “They’re all trying to predict different things based on their customer or the kind of lending they’re doing,” Griffin says.

How to obtain your credit report and credit score

Federal law gives you the right to get a free copy of your report every 12 months from each of the three major national credit reporting companies noted above. But during the economic disruptions of the pandemic, when many people became especially worried about maintaining their good credit, all three agreed to provide free reports as often as once a week, an offer that will last at least through December 2023.

All three credit reporting companies also offer online tools that enable you to monitor and manage your credit.

  • Experian has a mobile app that provides free access to your credit report and FICO score, including notifications when your report or score changes. It also offers Experian Boost, a feature that enables consumers to improve their FICO score by giving them credit for on-time utility, telecom, rent and some streaming service payments.
  • TransUnion offers a subscription-based credit monitoring service, which provides credit reports and VantageScores, an alternative to FICO, which also can accessed with a mobile app.
  • Equifax has a subscription-based credit monitoring and identity-theft protection service, as well as a mobile app called Lock & Alert, which allows consumers to control who has access to their Equifax credit reports.

It’s also possible to obtain the reports by calling 1-877-322-8228 and going through a verification process, or by filling out this Annual Credit Report Request Form and mailing it to the address listed at the top.

Since one credit reporting company can have different information from another, the CFPB recommends checking all three of them at least once every 12 months to make sure they’re accurate and complete. But you may want to check your credit report more often if you’re applying for a job, an insurance policy or a lease that could be affected by mistakes or signs of fraud in your report, for instance — or if you suspect that you may be a target of identity theft.

While there’s no similar legal requirement for free credit scores, some banks and credit unions provide them without charge to customers. Here’s a list of more than 200 institutions that participate in a program to provide free access to FICO scores. You can also get your score by signing up for a credit monitoring service or for Experian’s free credit monitoring program.

Spotting and fixing credit problems

In addition to mistakes, you want to scrutinize the reports for signs of fraud or identity theft. “Basically, you’re looking for a report that aligns with your behavior,” explains Jonah Kaplan, a senior program manager for the CFPB. “If you’ve paid some accounts on time and it doesn’t show in the report, that can be a problem. And if there’s an account you don’t recognize at all, it can be a problem too.”

While you can do so more often, you might need to look over your credit reports only once or twice a year. Kaplan suggests using your credit score as a sort of warning system. If you see a sudden drop in your score that’s larger than a few points, that’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

When you see something that doesn’t look right, Kaplan says it’s crucial to contact the credit reporting company. Under federal law, you have a right to dispute information you suspect is inaccurate, and the credit reporting company has an obligation to investigate and inform you of the result — including any corrections they make to your report. (The CFPB offers a step-by-step guide on how to dispute an error on your credit report here.)

“We have a robust resolution system that is governed by federal and state law,” industry group official Ellman says. “We are required to resolve these disputes in 30 to 45 days, depending upon the circumstances. And most are resolved in far less.”

When and how to freeze your credit

Experts often recommend that consumers who are not at a point in their lives where they’re actively seeking credit (many older people, for instance) protect themselves from fraud by putting a security freeze on their credit, which restricts access to your credit history and makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. 

Consumers whose credit information is not likely to be needed in the foreseeable future, “should just freeze it and be done with it,” Kaplan explains.

Since 2018, federal law has required the three nationwide credit reporting companies to freeze and unfreeze credit records at people’s request for free. Once you request a freeze online or by phone, the agency has to restrict access to your credit within one business day. If you ask to have it unfrozen, the company has to lift the freeze within one hour if you request online or by phone. (You can make the request by mail as well, but it takes up to three business days from receipt to freeze or unfreeze your credit that way.)

To freeze your credit, you must contact all three credit reporting agencies. Here are instructions on how to do it from ExperianEquifax and TransUnion.

A security freeze doesn’t completely block access to your credit history, Griffin notes. Your existing lenders can still access it, and so can employers, landlords and insurance companies if you’re seeking a job, trying to rent an apartment or applying for a new insurance policy.

It’s also possible to lock your credit, which is different from freezing because you can lock and unlock your records yourself. But to get that ability, you may have to pay a monthly fee, according to CFPB’s website.

When your low score isn’t due to fraud

“The best way to build and maintain good credit and a high credit score is to practice positive credit habits consistently,” financial educator Maliga says. That includes paying bills on time every month, avoiding carrying a balance and limiting your credit utilization to 30 percent or less of what you’re eligible to borrow.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
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