Regardless of your grades in childhood, report card day was a nerve-racking experience. Even if you knew — absolutely knew — that you got straight A's, there was a part of you that wondered if you'd be surprised by one of the grades inside that report card.

Sometimes, that's what a credit report feels like, especially if you've never gotten one before. It seems mysterious and complicated, a document that tracks years and years of behavior. What exactly is a credit report? What's inside it? Why should you get one? Here are a few quick answers to those questions.

What is a credit report?
A credit report is a detailed record of your credit history maintained by one of three main US credit reporting agencies. Think of it as a file folder that holds information about your financial activities. When you apply for a loan, the lender sends the agencies details about that transaction. When you open up a new credit card, make a payment or miss a payment, all that information is added to your folder. The reporting agencies organize the information and sell it to lenders that use it to help determine whether to grant you a loan. In addition, your credit report provides the material used to calculate your credit score. To learn more about scores, please read our article The 5 Building Blocks of a Credit Score.

What's inside a credit report?
Although the information in your credit report can vary from state to state and agency to agency, it typically includes four types:

1. Identification and employment information
This includes your name (and your spouse's name, if applicable), birth date, Social Security number, current employer and previous employers. This may also cover your home ownership status, previous and current addresses, and income.

2. Payment history
This section summarizes information from each of your accounts with different creditors such as banks, retailers, credit card companies and additional lenders. How much credit you've been extended, your balances and whether you've consistently made payments will be listed as well.

3. Inquiries
Credit reporting agencies keep a record of all the creditors who have asked for your credit history within the past year. They also keep a list of businesses and individuals that requested your credit history for employment inquiries in the last two years.

4. Public record information
Events from state and county courts that are considered public record may appear in your report. This can include bankruptcies, foreclosures, suits, wage attachments, tax liens and judgments.

Why get a credit report?
On the surface, "getting a credit report" might sound like a difficult, and possibly expensive, thing to do. The truth is that it's easy to get your report online, and it's actually free. According to the Federal Trade Commission's website: "The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months." For more information, visit annualcreditreport.com.

Now that you know how easy it is to get a credit report, here are a few very important things you'll be able to do with it:

1. Correct old and inaccurate information
Despite countless safeguards, inaccurate information can end up on a credit report. A recent study found that 1 in 4 reports contains significant errors that can impact your ability to obtain a loan. At the very least, your information could be out of date. Make sure your report is up to date before you apply for a loan.

2. Eliminate surprises
The worst way to find out about an issue on your credit report is when a car dealer or lender asks you a hard question during the loan application process. The earlier you get your report, the longer you have to prepare for the car shopping experience. Get answers to the tough questions or avoid them altogether by working on the information your credit report provides. It's also easier to make smart decisions-from applying for credit cards to refinancing a mortgage-when you understand your finances.

3. Help prevent identity theft
A crime that is unfortunately on the rise, identity theft occurs when someone uses your information, such as your Social Security number or credit card number, to commit fraud. With your credit report, you'll be able to check that everything reflected is about you, and only you. If you discover inaccurate or fraudulent information in your report such as a credit card you did not open, contact the credit reporting agencies immediately. You need to also contact the information provider, in this example, the credit card company. For more information, please visit the Federal Trade Commission's website.

Next Steps
As with any aspect of credit, reporting is a personal issue based on your unique information and financial history. We suggest you work with one of the three main US credit reporting agencies to learn more about your credit report. Each agency offers an assortment of products and services that can help you do everything from understand your credit score to protect yourself from the dangers of identity theft.

There are several easy ways to get the information you need online. We encourage you to continue your credit exploration with a visit to Equifax, AutoTrader.com's preferred credit monitoring provider.


© 2007 AutoTrader.com, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
"AutoTrader.com" is a registered trademark of TPI Holdings, Inc. used under exclusive license.

author photo

Jon Acuff is a staff writer for AutoTrader.com.

AutoTrader.com

Related Articles & Car Reviews

Find Cars for sale near you:

Research by Vehicle Type

  • Convertible
  • Coupe
  • Hatchback
  • Hybrid
  • Luxury
  • Sedan
  • SUV
  • Truck
  • Van/Minivan
  • Wagon

Shopping Tools

Loading Ajax Content Loading Ajax Content