Most credit counselors advise that you check your credit report at least once a year and before you apply for a big loan. By checking your report you'll know what's in it and can correct erroneous information.
"Basically, a report tells someone who has a need to know how we handle our money," said Betty Ashley, president and chief executive officer of the local Consumer Credit Counseling Service. "It reflects a person's character, stability and responsibility."
Most credit reports include: your name, address social security number, and date of birth. They also will have sections listing your credit history, accounts turned over to collection agencies, court records, former addresses and employers and who has looked at your report in the past two years.
Credit accounts are noted on a credit report for seven years after they are closed and bankruptcies are noted for as many as 10 years, credit experts say.
Three major credit reporting agencies track credit activity: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. Each company has its own report and procedure for updating it, so each one may be different.
Under federal law, you can get a free credit report from the reporting agency that the creditor used to check your credit history. Otherwise, you might have to pay as much as $8. To get your free credit report, contact the reporting agency that the creditor used.
Under state law, however, Georgia residents are allowed two free reports from each agency a year. Additional reports may cost money.
South Carolina does not have the same consumer laws, so unless you are denied credit or the agency offers you a free report, you will have to pay for it.
Criminals who get a hold of your name and Social Security number can use your identity to get credit and steal from you without your knowledge. This type of crime is becoming more common.
Once you have your report, you can correct information by contacting the reporting agency. If you have difficulty reading or understanding the report, Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit organization, can help. Beware of other organizations that advertising credit repair or charge big fees -- some of them are scams, credit counselors say.
Some companies know tricks that can make a person's credit report appear better than it is for a while, but the best way to maintain a good report is with timely payments, credit counselors say.
Here are the addresses and telephone numbers for the three major reporting agencies:
-- Equifax, P.O. Box 740193, Atlanta, GA 30374-0193, (888) 841-7335
-- Experian, 701 Experian Parkway, P.O. Box 949, Allen, TX 75013, (800) 682-7654
-- Trans Union Corp., 760 Sprout Road, Springfield, PA 19064, (800) 916-8800