An annual financial checkup is just as important as a yearly physical.
That's why it's important to obtain and review your credit reports once a year and then take the time to find ways to improve your credit scores.
If you think knowing your credit score is not important, think again.
A 2013 Federal Trade Commission study found that 21 percent of consumers had verified errors in their credit reports. Additionally, 13 percent had errors that affected their credit scores, and 5 percent had errors that were serious enough that they could be denied credit or forced to pay more for a loan.
Diahann Lassus, a certified financial planner and president of Lassus Wherley, recommends that her clients check their credit at least once a year.
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"We had a client discover that he had an outstanding car loan on his credit report for a car he never purchased," she said. "It was a case of identity theft, and it took him quite a while to get it corrected, but reviewing the credit report helped him catch it much earlier."
In fact, Lassus said, many of her clients have discovered that accounts they had closed were still showing as open accounts on their credit report and have found many differences between the three different credit reports.
The big three credit reporting bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
According to the United States Public Interest Research Group, low credit scores can translate into high interest rates on loans, difficulty getting hired and higher insurance costs.
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The best scores are higher than 700, a number that prompts lenders to offer borrowers the lowest interest rates on loans. Any credit score below 600 is considered poor and can cost consumers thousands of dollars or more a year in borrowing costs.
So why should you care about your credit report scores?
Because lenders use credit reports to determine the interest rates on loans, which means the more creditworthy you appear on paper, the lower the rate you pay. The fact is that any errors on credit reports can cause you to pay more.
In some cases, you could even pay a higher premium for your auto and homeowner insurance, because insurance companies have found that people with poor credit histories tend to file more insurance claims.
Additionally, even though at least 10 states have passed laws prohibiting companies from pulling a job candidate's credit report, other states still allow it, enabling companies to consider an applicant's credit history when hiring. However, federal laws do require that the employer receive the job candidate's consent before pulling the report.
Common errors that appear on credit reports:
- Misspelled names
- Incorrect Social Security numbers
- Inaccurate birth dates
- Inaccurate information about a spouse
- An out-of-date address
- "Closed" accounts listed as "open"
- The same mortgage or loan listed twice
- Absence of major credit, loan, mortgage or other accounts that could be used to demonstrate creditworthiness
So while good credit scores are critical when someone is looking to buy a new home, refinance his or her existing home or purchase a car, the average consumer has a minimal understanding of the importance of their scores, according to various studies from the Consumer Federation of America.
By taking a few simple steps to increase their credit scores, people can save thousands of dollars a year on a mortgage or car loan, according to the CFA.
In the case of a mortgage, for example, a person with a credit score of 720 could qualify for a 30-year mortgage carrying a 5.5 percent interest rate, according to an example from the CFA. Someone with a score of 580, on the other hand, probably would pay 8.5 percent or more. On a $500,000 mortgage loan, the difference between having good credit and bad credit could be an additional $1,000 a month.
"Credit scores affect your ability to open credit lines and the rates that you get on things like car loans and mortgages," said Geri Pell, CEO of Pell Wealth Partners."In one case, we had a client who was looking to buy a house and had never checked her credit score. She was surprised to find that she wasn't able to get the best rate possible for her mortgage because it was lower than she had expected," she said. "She decided to hold off on buying the house, fixed her credit score because of the mistakes and then was able to get the best rate possible."
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So what is the fastest and easiest way to resolve an inaccuracy on your credit report?
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, both the credit reporting company and the information provider (that is, the company or organization that provides information about you to a credit reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. The Federal Trade Commission offers helpful tips on how to dispute credit report problems.
—By Jim Pavia, senior editor at large