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How to Read a Consumer Credit Report

A good credit rating can impact your finances in more ways than one, so it’s vital that you know how to read your consumer credit report. When attempting to qualify for loans, credit cards, or lines of credit, lenders take your credit score into account. Your score determines in part whether you’re approved for new credit and what interest rate you'll receive on money that you borrow.

Key Takeaways

  • Having a good credit rating is essential to obtaining good terms on loans, credit cards, and other financial aspects of life.
  • Knowing what's on your credit report can help you establish a good credit rating, as it will notify you of what is bringing down your score and what might be troubled areas or inaccurate information.
  • The most popular credit score is the FICO score. Another common credit score is the VantageScore.
  • Personal information, credit accounts, collection items, public records, and inquiries are some of the items included in a credit report.
  • The FICO score is based on payment history credit utilization or amounts owed, length of credit history, credit mix, and new credit.

Who Generates Credit Scores?

Credit scores don’t just appear out of thin air. They’re calculated using the information in your credit report. The FICO score, originally developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation, is the most popular. This score ranges from 300 to 850, with 850 considered to be the “perfect” score. The VantageScore is another credit-scoring model.

While the FICO and VantageScore models use different algorithms to generate credit scores, they both rely on credit reporting agencies for information. Understanding how to read your credit report is the first step to better credit health.

How to Read Your Consumer Credit Report

At first glance, a credit report can seem like a jumble of numbers, but once you know what you’re looking at it becomes easier to decipher. Generally, credit reports are broken down into five main sections.

Personal Information

Your credit history is linked to your Social Security number. This, along with your name, date of birth, and current address will be listed on your credit report. Previous addresses, your employment history, and any other names you’ve gone by in the past, such as a maiden name, would also be included.

Credit Accounts

This is likely to be the largest section of your credit report, depending on how long you’ve been using credit. Here you’ll find details for all your current and past credit accounts, including the type of account, the creditor’s name, the current balance, your total credit limit, your payment history, and the date the account was opened and closed.

Collection Items

When a debt goes unpaid, your creditor can turn it over to a collection agency. Once an account goes to collections, it can show up on your credit report. Collection items can be very damaging to your score.

Public Records

If a debt collector sues you for an unpaid debt and wins, the court will enter a judgment against you. Judgments can appear on your credit report, as can any related actions to collect what’s owed, such as a wage garnishment or lien against your property. Foreclosures and bankruptcies would also be included in the public records section.

Inquiries

When you apply for new credit, the lender may check your credit report and score. This is called a hard inquiry. Each new inquiry for credit will land on your credit report. The exception to the rule is inquiries that don’t involve a check of your credit report, including any time you check your own report or score.

Your Credit Report and Credit Scoring

Knowing how to read the information in your credit report is important for several reasons. First, it can give you a better understanding of what affects your score, positively or negatively. FICO scores, for example, are based on five specific factors:

  • Payment History
  • Credit Utilization or Amounts Owed
  • Length of Credit History
  • Credit Mix
  • New Credit

Each factor carries a different weight in terms of how your scores are calculated. Out of the five, payment history is the most important. On-time payments can strengthen your score, while late or missed payments can cause it to drop substantially.

The VantageScore model uses a similar set of factors, including:

  • Payment History
  • Age and Type of Credit
  • Percentage of Credit Limit Used
  • Total Balances/Debt
  • Recent Credit Behavior and Inquiries
  • Available Credit

Once you know what’s in your report, it can be easier to recognize behaviors or trends that could be helping or hurting your score. From there you can adopt credit habits that could help you build better credit. If you notice that you owe high balances on several of your credit cards, for example, paying down some of your debt may add points to your score.

The three main credit rating agencies are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Reviewing your credit report regularly is also important for detecting errors or spotting potential signs of identity theft. New accounts opened that you don’t recognize could signal that someone is using your personal information to obtain credit. And if you see that your payments aren’t being reported properly, you have the right to dispute those errors under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.    

To initiate a dispute, contact online or by mail the credit bureau that’s reporting the information. You’ll need to give it your name, account number, and the nature of the information you’re disputing. The credit bureau is required to investigate, usually within 30 days. If your dispute is valid, the error must be removed or corrected. If not, the credit bureau must let you know in writing why the information won’t be changed.

What Is a Consumer Credit Report?

A consumer credit report is a statement that depicts the credit activity and most recent credit profile of an individual. It shows the status of an individual's credit accounts, whether open, closed, or delinquent, credit limits, account balances, payment history, personal information such as name and Social Security number, and public records, such as liens, collections, and bankruptcies.

What Type of Information Is Not Found on a Consumer’s Credit Report?

Information not included on your credit report includes your personal buying habits, your marital status, your medical information, bank or investment balances, your education history, criminal records, and your credit score.

What Does a Full Credit Report Look Like?

A full credit report looks like a financial statement, depicting various information on an individual's credit profile. It has personal information on the top and is broken down by the various credit that an individual has, such as credit cards, loans, and mortgages, as well as other sections such as public records.

The Bottom Line

Credit reports can seem complicated, but they can be a valuable tool for improving your credit rating. Remember, however, that negative items—including past-due payments and collections—can stay on your credit report for up to seven years; bankruptcies can remain on for up to 10 years. Checking your report regularly can help you build a stronger credit history, which can work in your favor down the line as you seek out new loans or lines of credit.

Article Sources

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Experian. "What Is a Good Credit Score?" Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

  2. MyFico. "What's In My FICO Scores?" Accessed Dec. 10, 2021.

  3. Credit Karma. "What You Should Know About the VantageScore 3.0 Credit Scoring Model." Accessed Dec. 10. 2021.

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