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One of the simplest, cheapest and most overlooked tasks in maintaining overall financial health is obtaining and reviewing a copy of your credit report, a task that should be done at least annually.

Your credit report may be your most critical document when trying to purchase a home or car, obtain and educational loan or life insurance, or seek employment. A good credit report will also greatly increase your chances of getting the mortgage or loan you want at rates far lower than for those with poor credit histories. Your interest rate on loans directly reflects your financial history, as detailed in your credit report - the better the report, the lower your rates. And trends in hiring indicate that employers are increasingly requesting candidates' credit reports, especially in the financial, securities, and insurance fields.

An important consumer-friendly rule in the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), which amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act, recently went into effect. The rule guarantees consumers one free check of a credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.

  
In a perfect world, credit reports would reflect an accurate history of your loans and debts, and this history would reveal only the most recent seven years of consumer activity, absent bankruptcy. People are often shocked to be barred from financing a new car or their child's education because of late payments made, say, 12 years prior to their current loan application.

You've worked hard to establish and maintain your good credit and any misinformation about your credit history can and should be fixed. By regularly obtaining and reviewing your credit report, you can avoid unwanted surprises such as the reporting of debts (that weren't discharged in bankruptcy) older than seven years, accounts you never opened (due, possibly, to identity theft), and other issues that could affect the accuracy of the report.

Not only do you have the right to report inaccuracies in your credit report, you can also argue for their removal. Once you have submitted copies of cancelled checks or electronic payments, along with identifying information such as your date of birth and Social Security number, the agency has 30 days to review and correct the information. You are also entitled to place a 100-word personal statement in your report, which is an ideal place to explain any past financial problems. You should speak with your CPA to ensure proper wording of your statement, because too much or incorrect information can be self-defeating. You should also instruct the credit bureau to send corrected reports to anyone who has requested your credit history within the last six months.

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