Bad credit can result in unfavorable interest rates that cost you thousands when you take out a mortgage, a car loan or a student loan. It could block you from leasing that apartment you’ve been pining for. And it can be a black mark on your record that even prevents you from landing your dream job.
So it pays to know the essentials of your credit report and related score, the behaviors that can make your score rise or plummet, and the services that help you monitor your credit.
Your credit report is a summary of your borrowing and repayment history—any new accounts, closed accounts, unpaid bills, late bills, and other activity. If you have a loan, mortgage or credit card, it will show up here. Your credit report provides the basis for your credit score.
Your credit score (also called your Fair Isaac Corp. (FICO) score) is a three-digit number between 300 and 850 calculated from a formula that’s designed to gauge your creditworthiness. The three main credit-reporting agencies (Equifax Inc., Experian PLC, and TransUnion) buy the formula from Fair Isaac. The bureaus use your personal data and crunch the numbers differently, so your score will vary slightly at each agency. When a lender considers your application for credit, they turn to one (or all) of the credit agencies for your score, which indicates your reliability as a borrower.
Here are a few ingredients of a credit score:
• Payment History: Whether you pay your bills on time, including credit cards, student loans, utility bills, or any other lender or service provider that reports to the big three agencies. Getting this right is easy: don’t blow the due date.
• Amounts owed: The breakdown of your credit balances, and how they compare to the limits of what you’re allowed to take out. If you’re maxed out, it can hurt.
• Years of credit: The age on your accounts. The longer your credit history, the better lenders can gauge your ability to repay. Unfortunately, the formula knocks young borrowers who don’t have an established, detailed history.
• New credit: How many accounts have you opened recently, and how many lenders have inquired about your credit? The more activity, the more it appears you’re about to go on a debt binge.
• Types of credit: The mix of accounts you hold, such as auto loans, credit cards, student loans, or mortgages.
In general, higher credit scores equate to lower interest rates, meaning less cash you’ll have to fork over during the life of a loan. Recently, credit experts think any score above 720 will get you the optimum interest rate. In 2007, the national average FICO score is 723, and 58% of Americans have a score higher than 700, according to Fair Isaac.
Remember that your credit score is important, but it’s not the sole factor in whether you get approved for a loan, credit card, or other forms of credit. Most lenders also look at your annual income, employment history, and other factors.
With many consumers worried about shaky credit—especially with the threat of identity theft and credit card fraud—many financial institutions, companies, and the credit bureaus themselves are pitching products that guard your credit. Their credit monitoring services watch for new accounts, a surge in balances, or other changes to your accounts. Some will produce detailed reports about your credit score and suggest ways to make it more attractive to lenders.
Don’t confuse credit monitoring with identity theft protection. Credit card fraud is just a piece of the larger problem of identity theft. Paying someone to monitor your credit will not halt identity theft or unauthorized uses of your Social Security number or other personal data, although it can help you detect problems before they escalate.
Do You Need Credit Monitoring?
The thought of a thief running up huge credit-card debts in your name is frightening. But credit-monitoring firms are banking on that fear, especially if you’re already a victim of a data breach. Before you shell out $100 (or more) per year for a credit watchdog, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Maybe you know that you won’t keep adequate watch yourself. Perhaps you’re applying for a mortgage and want to make sure your credit remains pristine. Or you could just be obsessed with the idea of credit fraud. If so, credit monitoring might be worth the peace of mind.
If you’re on the fence about whether you need credit monitoring, consider these self-serve approaches for protecting your credit:
Watch your bank and credit card statements for fishy transactions — Make a habit of scanning your financial accounts daily, or at least weekly. Some creditors will even allow you to set up your own free alerts to notify you when online transactions are made on your account or when a purchase exceeds a specified amount.
Keep an eye on your credit report — By law, you’re entitled to a free report every year from each of the three bureaus, so you might as well order a different one every four months. Scan it for abnormal activity, such as accounts or credit cards you didn’t open. You can order the report through each agency, or at annualcreditreport.com. Don’t fall for the add-ons; you just want the score.
If you’re curious about your credit score, you might be able to access it for free. Many banks don’t offer this perk—instead they’ll package your score with inflated charts and graphs and make you pay for it. But it doesn’t hurt to ask for it. Another tack is to ask an inquirer (car salesman, credit card company, or landlord) for a peek at your score. They’ll pull your score before doing business with you, and might share it if you ask nicely.
You can also take other common-sense measures, such as protecting your credit accounts online and shredding sensitive documents, to help prevent fraud. It’s good to know that you have the power to control your credit without paying someone else to do it. Remember, annualcreditreport.com is where to order your free credit report.
How to Picking the Right Service and Boosting Your Credit Score
You should base your buying decision on how comprehensive you want the monitoring to be and what you’re willing to pay for it. If you’re conscientious about your credit, there are many common-sense steps you can take yourself to keep your credit healthy. In that case, credit monitoring may not be worth the extra money.
The big three credit agencies all offer products that will try to detect fraud and generate your credit score. Each provides a variety of packages depending on how vigilant you want them to be. Many banks offer similar services — look around, you might be able to get a better offer through your financial institution. And the identity-theft players, like LifeLock and TrustedID, also pitch credit monitoring as part of their ID theft protection services.
Make sure you consider the cost before signing on. Some services charge as much as $50 monthly to keep tabs on your credit, which can total $600 annually. Weigh that expense against your odds of suffering credit card fraud. By one estimate, identity theft touches 3 percent of Americans each year—with credit card fraud just a fraction of that number.
Finally, watch out for the bureaus promoting fancy scores that purport to measure your credit risk by some reconfigured formula. You only want the FICO score, the same one lenders request. The other so-called FAKO scores—like Experian’s PLUS score, TransUnion’s TransRisk score or Experian’s Credit ScoreTracker—are money drains. They’ll just confuse you about where you really stand. If you just want your score, you can order it through Fair Isaac.
If you’re merely looking to keep your credit in good health, it’s not too tricky. Limit your credit cards, set up automated payments to pay your bills on time, space out when you apply for loans and accounts, avoid maxing out your credit cards and carrying unpaid balances. And keep it up for years and years. In short, don’t go nuts with credit, and you should be fine.
If you’re paying for credit monitoring or just doing it on your own, be sure to report any errors you spot in your report. Contact the agency that sent you the report—each of them has a process for reporting errors. Incorrect info can be damaging to your credit.
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