Do you know your credit score? Many people don’t.
A 2018 survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that only about 57 percent of Americans check their credit score annually. But according to nationally recognized credit expert John Ulzheimer, keeping track of your credit score is critical to your overall financial health.
“Credit scores are very important to consumers. They are used for risk assessment by lenders and are used to set the terms of your accounts,” he said. “It's important that consumers are aware of their scores because they act as a proxy for the information on their credit reports.”
Luckily, you don’t have to break the bank to stay on top of your credit. Follow these tips to monitor your credit score for free.
Your credit report and your credit score are two different things, said Ulzheimer.
“Generally speaking, a score is a three-digit summary of the information on your credit report. Think of the report as the test and the score as the grade you earned.”
Practice good credit by keeping an eye on both, but pay closer attention to your credit report data.
“Scores change for a variety of reasons, most of which are completely harmless,” he said. “So if you were a victim of fraud, there's no guarantee your scores would change to the extent that it would alert you of some sort of problem. But, if you are monitoring your credit reports, you're going to know exactly what changes and can react accordingly.”
According to federal law, consumers are entitled to one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies — Experian®, Equifax® and TransUnion®.
Simply visit AnnualCreditReport.com to request your credit report from each bureau. If you spread out your requests over the year, you can receive a different agency’s report on your credit every four months.
Checking your credit score can get confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for, said Ulzheimer. Make sure you’re using the same rating system that commercial lenders use.
“There are countless scores commercially available and in use in the credit industry,” he said. “Any score that falls under the FICO or VantageScore brands are what you should be focusing on.”
Another great way to stay on top of your credit is to request a security freeze.
“I'd advise people to freeze their reports rather than monitor their reports,” Ulzheimer explained. “Monitoring is reactive and only alerts you when something has already happened. Freezes prevent any unauthorized access into your credit reports.”
Freezing and unfreezing your credit report is entirely free, thanks to a 2018 amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Each credit bureau has instructions on its website to request a security freeze.
As you review your credit report, be sure to look for signs of fraudulent activity. If you see anything suspicious, report it to the agency right away.
“The bureau will generally investigate within 30 days. You will want to be sure you state facts along with any information you may have to dispute the claim,” said Kurt Brucker, credit score expert for oXYGen Financial, a leading independent financial services firm.
Many banks and credit card companies also provide their customers with regular credit score updates for free. This can be a great way to keep up with any changes to your credit.
“I actually like the credit card and freemium site-based services whereby I can see my scores at the same time every month. This allows me to see the chronology of my scores and how they've changed over time,” said Ulzheimer. “American Express and Discover are great for this, as is CreditKarma.”