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Reading a Credit Report

Reading a Credit Report

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Mark Cappel
UpdatedOct 2, 2012
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    8 min read
Key Takeaways:
  • Start by getting no-cost copies of your credit report.
  • Compare the information in all three of your credit reports.
  • Learn how to spot evidence of identity theft.

How to Read a Credit Report

The contents of a credit report are not a mystery, or at least they will not be by the time you finish here.

Start by downloading a copy of one of your credit reports. Yes, one of your reports. The biggest consumer credit reporting agencies (CRAs) are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The three are separate companies, compete with each other and smaller credit reporting agencies offering information to potential lenders about prospective borrowers. The information the big-three may have in their files for a particular person may be identical, or different. Therefore, if you suspect something is amiss with your credit report or credit score, get a copy of your credit report from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

Download no-cost, no-gimmick copies of your Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion credit reports from Each CRA will ask you to buy credit monitoring or related services, which is not necessary unless you suspect someone has stolen your identity.

Your credit reports will be structured somewhat like the table below. A consumer’s credit report contains four types of information:


Usually your birth date, Social Security number, employer, and if you have any joint accounts, your spouse’s name. A credit report may also include a brief history of your employment, home ownership, and previous address, if a creditor requests that information.

Payment History

Credit reports list present and past accounts, credit limits and amount of credit used, and whether the accounts were paid on time. Charge-offs, sale of an overdue account to a collection agent are almost always included in a credit report. Your payment history may be split into two categories: Adverse or Negative and Satisfactory or Positive. Adverse accounts contains some type of derogatory, such as a 30-day or longer late payment. Satisfactory accounts have no negative events.

Inquiries & Account Reviews

Credit reporting companies must keep a record of creditors who ask for a consumer’s credit history within the past year, and a record of people or businesses that request a credit history for employment purposes for the past two years.

Public Record Information

Public records from court records may appear in a credit report. In the experience of, Public record information is inconsistent. Some courts seem to make it easier for the CRAs to gather this information than others. As a result, public record information may not include all judgments and liens against a consumer.

A credit report may portray a complete and accurate picture of a consumer’s financial life. It may also contain errors and omit significant facts, such as a judgment or wage garnishment. It is also common for CRAs to confuse two people with similar names who reside at the same address, such as a father and son who share the same names. We discuss what to do if you see errors in your credit report below.

Quick Tip

Unpaid debts on your credit report weighing you down? Talk to one of’s debt resolution partners to learn your options.

Reading a Credit Report

The precise format each CRA uses for credit reports varies, but follows the basic structure found in the table below. The CRAs produce visually friendly versions of their credit reports for consumers that include graphics and colors. Creditors receive text-based reports full of codes that requires a table to decipher.

Compare your report or reports to the table below.

Personal Information
Name: Your name should be accurate. May include statement about length in CRA’s records.SSN: The last four digits of your Social Security number will be displayed. Date of Birth: Should be accurate. Telephone: Often inaccurate. Most consumers probably do not care either way.
Current Address Your current address should be accurate. If address is unfamiliar to you, then this is one clue pointing to identity theft. “Reporting date” should correspond to date you moved to that address or first applied for credit at that address.Other Addresses Your former addresses, or if you own other property, your other addresses. Watch for unfamiliar addresses here, too, as evidence of identity theft.
Employment Data Reported Usually reported to CRAs by a creditor who gathered this information from one of your credit applications.
Adverse / Derogatory Accounts
Each CRA reports this slightly differently. Some reports are 100% text and require a great deal of reading and interpretation to understand. Some use account codes that are explained at the bottom of the report in a glossary. Derogatory account information may be reported for 7 years from the date of the first delinquency. Expect to see this information about your accounts, whether they are derogatory or current: • Name of the credit issuer • Account number (may be truncated) • Mailing address and phone number of creditor • Current balance • Date updated • High Balance • Last Payment date • Pay status • Account type (revolving, installment, etc.) • Responsibility (individual or joint account) • Date opened • Date paid • Loan type (Usually "charge account" or "student loan") • Terms • An account history. Sometimes displayed with graphics and colors. Watch for unfamiliar accounts listed here. If you find any, this may be evidence of identity theft. Contact the creditor, the FTC, and your local police if you are an identity theft victim.
Satisfactory / Never-Delinquent Accounts
Accounts reported with no adverse information. These will have the same information fields as adverse / derogatory accounts. Watch for unfamiliar accounts listed here as evidence of identity theft. Victims usually discover they were targets of identity theft when the accounts go into collections. If you see a new surprise account here, you are catching the ID thief in the act.
Regular Inquiries / Hard Inquiries
Companies that received a copy of your credit report in response to your application for credit. Hard inquiries have a slight negative impact on your credit score, and remain on your credit report for two years. Expect to see this information about your hard inquiries: • Name of creditor • Creditor’s address and telephone number • Date requested • Inquiry Type (Participant/joint account or individual) Watch for unfamiliar inquiries listed here as evidence of identity theft.
Promotional Inquiries / Soft Inquiries
Companies that received your name, address and other limited information about you so they could make an offer of credit or insurance. They did not receive your full credit report. These inquiries are not seen by anyone but you and do not harm your score. This list may be quite long, and its names will probably be familiar to you. Why? You probably received junk mail from companies that made soft inquiries offering you credit or insurance. Your ordering copies of your credit reports from the CRAs count as soft inquiries, and do not harm your credit score.
Account Review Inquiries
If you have any creditors listed here, it is an existing creditor checking your credit report to see if you are current on your other accounts. Often account reviews are conducted by creditors with whom you have a delinquent account.
Public Information
This is information from state and county courts, including: • Bankruptcies • Foreclosures • Lawsuits • Wage attachments • Liens • Judgments Overdue debt from collection agencies may be reported here. Beware: Just because a derogatory is reported here does not mean the information is accurate. Dispute any inaccurate information in your credit report, including errors found in this section. Also, just because a foreclosure, judgment, lien, and so on is not reported does not mean the foreclosure, judgment, lien, and so on was never filed. Credit reports can be an imperfect snapshot of a person's financial history.

How to read a credit report. Source:

What If I Find Errors?

Decide if the errors are evidence of identity theft. Some signs of identity theft are:

  • Credit card accounts you do not recognize
  • Addresses in your report you do not recognize
  • Larger account balances than you expect

If the errors are more innocent, such as a transposed number in your address or an account showing a balance you know is paid, then file a dispute with the CRA or CRAs reporting the misinformation. You can do so online using the information in the table below.

File a credit dispute online at EquifaxFile a credit dispute online at ExperianFile a credit dispute online at TransUnion

Where to file disputes on your credit reports. Source:

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, both the CRA and the information provider are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. Contact both the CRA and the information provider that provided the incorrect information and explain why the information in your credit report is in error. See the article How to Dispute a Credit Report to learn more.