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Whether you're looking for a job, buying a car or shopping for insurance, it's always a good idea to review your credit report before a potential lender (or employer) takes a peek.
Your credit report, a running history of your borrowing and payment behavior, is likely to be pulled and scrutinized. Whether it's accurate or not, any negative information can cost you thousands of dollars in the form of interest rates on loans. Even worse, it can stop you from being able to make a purchase or land that job.
"Credit has become more and more important," Jesse Levey, COO of Credit Sesame, a website that provides credit monitoring services as well as other personal finance tools, told CNBC's "On the Money " in an interview.
"It used to be you needed good credit if you wanted a mortgage, now good credit makes a difference in so many different aspects of your life," he added.
If good credit is king, how do you manage it?
There are three main credit reporting agencies, and by federal law consumers are entitled to a free report from each agency once a year. While there are many sites out there that claim to give a free credit report, the official place to go is annualcreditreport.com
Credit reports list all forms of debt, including credit card accounts, car loans, personal loans and even rental agreements. The balance outstanding and your payment history will also be listed by account.
As you scan, check to make sure everything listed actually belongs to you, Levey advised. "Make sure all the information is your information. Check any delinquencies or debts to make sure it's accurate."
Errors are more common than you may think. In its monthly report, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found the three credit reporting agencies — TransUnion, Experian and Equifax — were the top-three most complained about companies. Incorrect credit report information was the most common type of complaint.
"If somebody else's information lands on your credit report due to an error, it's really important to catch them and alert the bureau," said Levey. He added that the credit agencies have an incentive to fix inaccuracies to protect their own professional reputations and integrity, since after all they make money selling these reports.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises consumers to report the error in writing, and they provide a sample letter on their website to get you started. Make copies of any supporting documentation that prove the information is incorrect.
If you want to do it all online, Levey said each credit agency also has dispute process that you can complete by going to their website.
It's also a good idea to notify the creditor, bank or credit card company. If you're disputing an item, many have departments set up just for handling credit disputes.
If your credit report does contain negative yet accurate information, then all you can do is wait because only time will remove it. Be wary of companies that say they can remove negative information from your report instantly, or say they can give you a new credit identity. Both claims are classic scams and can even be illegal.
Instead, be vigilant and monitor your credit. Keeping an eye on your report and effectively managing your debt will keep your credit in good shape.
"On the Money" airs on CNBC on Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.