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   Consumer Credit

Consumer Credit 101: The Basics
(ARA)

Do you know what's in your credit report? Are you sure it's completely accurate? How about your credit score? Do you know what it is … or how you can improve it?

If you are one of the 205 million Americans who has a charge account, car loan, student loan or home mortgage, you probably know that your credit history may influence whether you can get a loan and what interest rate you'll pay. However, you may not know who else might be checking your credit report. Landlords, insurance companies, even employers who have a permissible purpose by law may check your credit report to see whether you've handled credit responsibly in the past. A solid record of paying your bills on time may be just the character reference you need to land a job.

Perhaps it's time for you to learn a bit more about this central feature of modern life.

First of all, you should realize you don't have just one credit report. Actually, there are three major credit reporting agencies (a.k.a. "credit bureaus") that gather, maintain and sell information about your credit history. These companies -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union -- collect facts about your payment habits from credit grantors like banks and retail stores; maintain that data in computer databases; and use that information to generate your credit score, which is essentially a statistical summary of the information contained in your credit report. When you apply for a new credit card or loan, the lender orders your credit report from at least one of the credit bureaus and analyzes the information to decide whether you're likely to repay your debt.

You can -- and should -- check your credit reports to see how you rate and make sure the information in them is completely accurate. By checking your credit reports regularly, you can catch possible inaccuracies and dispute them. For many people, it makes sense to subscribe to a credit monitoring service, which allows you to check your report as often as you'd like.

It generally makes sense to check all three of the major bureaus. While most major lenders report consumer account information to all three bureaus, smaller banks and other credit grantors may report to only one, or even none. Therefore, your credit report might differ from one bureau to the next, and a possible inaccuracy in one might not be found in another. You can avoid the hassle and inconvenience of contacting three separate organizations by using a service which offers credit reports from all three bureaus.

Finally, learn more about how you might be able to enhance your credit report and improve your credit score. There are a variety of online sites that provide useful information on credit reports and credit scores, as well as tips for improving both.

For information on credit reports and credit scores, try Credit Matters (www.creditmatters.com) and the Yahoo Credit Center (www.loan.yahoo.com/c). CreditMatters also offers comprehensive three-bureau reports as well as single-bureau reports. ConsumerInfo.com (www.consumerinfo.com) offers an excellent credit report monitoring service. Courtesy of ARA Content

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