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Related topics: credit, credit score, credit reports, financial privacy, credit cards

When you set about tidying and reorganizing your linen closet or garage, don't forget about your credit report. Your credit history is the foundation of your financial stability. The information in your credit report is what scoring companies such as FICO use to generate your credit scores, which govern everything from how much you pay for a loan -- or if you can get one -- to your insurance rates.

Paying attention to your credit report only when you're about to make a big purchase, such as a house or car, can backfire. According to a 2004 U.S. Public Interest Research Group study, nearly 80% of surveyed reports had inaccuracies. (And 25% had "serious errors.") If any inaccuracy takes some time to sort out, that can be a problem if you're racing the clock to secure a loan. Get a head start by going over your credit report now, and check up on it periodically so you can catch and fix any problems right away. (Do you know your credit scores? Take this MSN Money quiz to get an estimate.)

1. Order a copy of your credit report

If it's been years since you've given your credit report a good once-over, or if you never have, just figuring out where to start can be daunting. Luckily, federal law entitles you to a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can get a free copy of all three bureaus' versions of your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.

To check your credit report every few months, order one at a time and space them out over the year. Or, if you're getting acquainted with your credit history for the first time, order all three at once. If you live in Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Vermont, you're entitled to a second copy of each report annually, says Steve Bucci, Bankrate's debt adviser and the author of "Credit Repair Kit for Dummies." Georgia residents can get three a year from each bureau.

If you're turned down for a job or credit, or if you don't get the best interest rate available, you also have a legal right to see your credit reports at no charge. The paperwork you get notifying you of the decision will include a number for you to call.

2. Start with your identification basics

It's easy for people to forget the most important part of their credit report: checking their identifying information, including name, address and Social Security number, says Natalie Lohrenz, the director of counseling at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County, in California.

"People obsess over tiny fluctuations in their credit score, but what they should focus on is the question, 'Is it accurate?'" she says.

Small discrepancies, such as an account that lists you by your nickname instead of your given name, don't affect your score, but if there's a more serious discrepancy such as an incorrect Social Security number, you'll want to straighten it out, says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public education at Experian.

After checking all of the identifying information, look at the accounts and make sure they're all yours. Keep in mind that some lenders, such as the financing companies that issue store-brand credit cards and companies that handle medical billing, might have different names from those on storefronts or hospitals.

3. Scan your report for discrepancies

"If you see an account you don't recognize, you definitely want to call that to a credit bureau's attention," says Craig Watts, the public affairs manager for FICO. "Definitely find out what's going on. If you see any negative information like a collection account that you don't think belongs there, it could be somebody else's account that got into your report by mistake, or something you forgot about," he says.

Watts says another red flag can be an account with a much higher balance than you carry. Because any of these items could indicate a case of mistaken identity or identity theft, these are problems to address right away.

Jessica Cecere, a regional president at credit counseling organization CredAbility, says one common error she encounters is the inclusion of old negative information that should have come off the person's record. Most negative information stays on for seven years, and Chapter 7 bankruptcies remain for 10. "A lot of times the information on your report doesn't automatically fall off at that seven-year mark," she says.