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Want to Improve Your Credit? Here's Where to Start

People looking to improve their credit often receive varying advice on how to do so. If you’ve got giant credit card balances, for instance, you’ll probably want to pay them down. If you’ve applied for a lot of store credit cards recently, it may be a good idea to avoid adding even more cards — and inquiries — to your name.

But there’s one constant rule of thumb that can help all people when it comes to improving their creditworthiness (primarily because it helps you learn what problems may be holding you back): You should check your credit regularly. 

As you may recall, there are lots of credit scores in use in the credit marketplace and it can be virtually impossible to know which one a specific lender is going to use when you fill out their loan application. But all scores are derived from the information that’s on your credit report, so you’ll want to check yours frequently to make sure everything is accurate and to identify particular line items (like a loan in default or a nearly maxed out credit card) that can be costing you points across the board.

How to Keep an Eye on Your Credit

Fortunately, it’s easy to get a hold of your credit reports. The Fair Credit Reporting Act entitles all consumers to a free one from each credit bureau every 12 months. You can obtain these free annual credit reports by visiting the government-mandated website AnnualCreditReport.com. Remember, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each bureau (not simply a free one each year) so you may want to space out your requests with the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to keep an eye on your credit all year round.

You can also get a good idea if any new items are affecting your ability to secure financing checking your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

Not Just for Credit-Builders

Whenever or wherever you are checking, if you notice something amiss, it’s in your best interest to dispute the error with the credit bureau in question and to pull your other reports to see if similar inaccuracies exist. Unfamiliar information, like a mysterious address or a loan you never applied for, may be signs your identity has been stolen. If you believe your identity has been compromised, you should also notify the local authorities, file a compliant with the Federal Trade Commission and consider freezing your credit so no new loans can be taken out in your name.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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