Judgments, liens, bankruptcies

Hopefully, you would know if you've had any major financial difficulties that involved judgments, liens or bankruptcies. However, if someone else is using -- and trashing -- your financial identity, a notation on your credit report could be your first clue.

Ditto if a less-than-scrupulous collector has tagged you with someone else's debt or taken action against you without proper notification.

When you get that report, scan the "public records" section, says Michelle Dosher, the managing editor for consumer publications for the Credit Union National Association. "If there are any liens or bankruptcies, it's a good way to check."

Active accounts you closed -- or never opened

You closed a store card after you moved. Or you finally got around to asking your daughter to close the card account you co-signed for when she was in college.

The next time you pull your credit report, if enough time has elapsed, it should show that those accounts are closed, says Dosher.

Glancing at your credit report "is a way to verify that you have closed them and the dates are correct," she says. If what should be a closed account your credit report lists as open, that's a good time to contact the issuer and find out why.

Another thing to look for is accounts you don't remember opening in the first place. Absent a mix-up, that could be an "indication of identity theft," says Dosher.

Hard inquiries

Your credit report will tell you who else has been viewing your credit report. Called "inquiries" in credit-speak, they come in two varieties.

Hard inquiries are when you have actually requested new credit -- filled out an application, signed paperwork, etc. -- and explicitly given permission for a lender to check your history. When you get a hard inquiry, your credit can take a small dip. Hard inquires could affect your score for one year, but you'll see them on your report for two years.

Soft inquiries are what credit bureaus put on your report when someone reviews your credit file but you haven't asked for new credit. If you pull your own credit report, that's a soft inquiry. You'll also see one if a prospective lender pulls your credit for marketing purposes. Soft inquiries don't affect your score.

Hard inquiries are "such a small part of your credit score," says Kelly Rogers, the chief development officer for the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County, Calif., and adjunct faculty at Chapman University. "But it's such a great way to see if anyone's been using your information."

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