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Your Credit Report: Know Its Perils, Keep It Clean

Imagine Terry Gross's surprise when she saw a document that seemed to show that her husband lived at several different addresses — under different names — and was deep in debt. Child-support payments to another woman? Back payments on an auto loan — when all these years he'd claimed he didn't even know how to drive?

As you may have guessed, the document was a report from a credit-rating agency — and it was riddled with errors. Not identity-theft errors — simple clerical mistakes that could have had serious consequences.

It was easy for Terry Gross's husband to convince her of that. It was less easy for them to convince the credit-rating agency; that required help from a lawyer.

It's just one more example of why it's important for everyone to keep an eye on their credit report, to know what their credit rating is, to understand how they're compiled and who does it.

Prof. Elizabeth Warren, a specialist in bankruptcy and contract law at Harvard Law School, reports that one in four credit reports contain errors significant enough to affect a credit score. Not only is Terry Gross's husband not alone, Warren says, he's one of a large number of Americans "who have credit reports who just don't reflect who they are."

Warren says the consequences can be enormous: A weaker credit score can affect much more than just interest rates and loan eligibility for major purchases like cars and homes.

Employers — perhaps as many as 70 percent of them — run credit checks on job applicants. Landlords and utilities use them to determine the size of security deposits.

Cell-phone providers and auto dealers query credit agencies before they quote a price for a plan or a sedan — the latter can be more expensive for a person with a spotty credit report even if the buyer intends to pay cash. Insurance companies charge higher rates for people with impaired credit. Student-loan providers may not lend to those with negative reports.

All of that means it's more important than ever to keep your credit report up to date, and to know how to challenge inaccurate information. Warren explains how errors creep in as agencies share information, and details tactics and strategies for discovering mistakes and cleaning up the mess.

Warren has written extensively on money management for middle-class families. She is the author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke and co-author of All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan, which she wrote with her daughter.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.