Even if you can’t recite the exact numbers off the top of your head, you probably know the general range of your credit score. (I’m in the mid-700s.) What’s scary is that one out of every five people has an error on at least one of their credit reports. That’s direct from the FTC. Even worse, 5 percent of those errors “could lead to…paying more for products such as auto loans and insurance.” So you need to be checking your three credit reports for errors and be aware of where you stand. There was an error on one of my credit reports, and there might be an error on yours.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks for Best Credit Report Site
- Identity Guard: Best for people who want identity theft protection with a focus on credit monitoring.
- MyFICO: Best for people who want to improve their credit right now.
- Honorable mentions: AnnualCreditReport.com (that’s the free one!) and IdentityForce.
You do have to be careful with your credit score. One out of every five people has an error on at least one of their credit reports. That’s direct from the FTC. Even worse, 5 percent of those errors “could lead to…paying more for products such as auto loans and insurance.” So you need to be checking your three credit reports for errors. There was an error on one of my credit reports, and there might be an error on yours.
It took me around 19 hours to research and review 22 different credit report sites to find which was the best to improve — and protect — your credit.
I was able to eliminate more than half of the services right away because they didn’t provide a complete set of credit reports and scores. Dan Crimmins, financial coach with the firm Crimmins Wealth Management in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and author of award-winning financial blog Roots of Wealth, explains: “A good service should provide credit scores and credit reports from all three credit agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. These reports allow you to verify that the information is correct and that no one is stealing your identity or committing fraud using your accounts, Social Security number, or other personal information.”
Yes, Crimmins is referencing both credit monitoring and identity theft monitoring, both of which are essential components of a top-level credit report site. (Some services bill themselves primarily as a credit report site with identity theft monitoring included, and other services consider themselves an identity protection tool that also track credit reports and credit scores — the marketing doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting all the necessary information.) To make my top picks, I also looked for credit report sites that offered educational tools to help you improve your credit, from calculators to help you predict your future credit score to articles and blogs to help you make smart personal finance decisions.
Identity Guard: Best for People Who Just Want to Monitor Their Credit
Identity Guard is a credit report site for people who want set-it-and-forget-it protection. MyFICO is ready to make you an active participant in your heroic journey toward better credit, but Identity Guard is perfectly happy to let you check in once a month or so. Or, you know, wait for the company to contact you. It’s $15 per month for all three credit bureaus, and it includes a free 30-day trial.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use Identity Guard to improve your credit. As I mentioned earlier, the service includes a credit analyzer that lets you test different scenarios and their effect on your credit score, including scenarios that can be completed in the next month.
Although you don’t get myFICO’s simple credit report overview, Identity Guard does let you view all three of your credit reports side by side, which is a good way to see if they’re all showing the same information or if one of them might have an error.
Identity Guard’s mobile app is pretty basic — just your credit scores, a news feed, and the option to receive alerts — and it doesn’t provide the fun credit score graph that myFICO includes. However, the app is still useful because it gives you a summary of the factors that influence your credit score, in case you want to see if any of those factors can be improved. (In my case, I could boost my credit score by taking out a mortgage or an auto loan — which would also mean buying a house or a car, so I’m not going to do that.)
Here are a few of Identity Guard’s other strengths:
Identity Guard makes it easy to see if you’re fully protected.
I love Identity Guard’s dashboard. It’s a quick and easy overview of your protection. As I mentioned above, myFICO’s dashboard was so cluttered with information that it took me several days to realize I hadn’t activated all of its features. Identity Guard gives me a one-stop check-in.
In case you’re wondering why I didn’t turn on the computer-monitoring services, they’re Windows-only. (Sorry, Mac users.)
Identity Guard literally sends you comforting words.
I would like to share the best email I have ever received from a company, ever:
The other credit report sites sent me emails telling me I needed to log into my account and review transactions or deal with identity theft false alarms. Identity Guard told me there was nothing I needed to do.
Identity Guard also sent me a one-month anniversary email that stated: “Good news, from what we can tell no notable activity has been detected with your personal information. If any new activity occurs, we will promptly alert you.” Identity Guard doesn’t offer transaction monitoring, so that explains why I wasn’t getting transaction alerts, but I had wondered why Identity Guard wasn’t sending me the same black market alerts that I was getting from myFICO. It looks like Identity Guard tracks black market sites differently, and only considers “notable activity.” (Which, after my experience with myFICO’s black market alerts, might be a good thing.)
Identity Guard gives you thorough instructions.
MyFICO and Identity Guard were both pretty good at providing instructions and explanations, but Identity Guard was the only site to thoroughly explain the credit report dispute process, how long the process might take to complete, and what to do if the credit bureaus don’t respond within the required 30 days.
The whole time I tested Identity Guard, I felt very secure and comfortable. I knew why it asked me to connect my bank accounts and credit cards, and I knew when I had completed all the steps required to protect myself. If myFICO is your credit score Dumbledore, Identity Guard is the wards around Hogwarts — ready to keep you safe while you go about your day.
MyFICO: Best for People Who Want to Improve Their Credit
The Fair Isaac Corporation, now known as FICO, is one of the biggest names in credit scores. It makes sense that its credit report service would be focused on helping you get that FICO score as high as possible. It’s also what puts the company at the top of my list — myFICO makes it so easy to track and improve your credit score. It’s $30 per month, which is more expensive than the three-bureau options offered by my other picks, but if your credit needs work, the extra cash is totally worth it.
MyFICO contextualizes your credit reports.
I don’t know if you’ve read your credit reports recently, but they are not designed to be understood at a glance. You have to figure out, on your own, that “COMENITY BANK/ATYLRLMC” means “Ann Taylor MasterCard.” (It had great rewards.) Then you have to look at every box representing every month that you’ve had that card open, to make sure there aren’t any errors, like a reported late payment when you’ve always paid on time.
MyFICO gives you everything you need to know about your credit reports on a single screen. If you want to see anything in more detail, you can click through and learn more about the positive and negative items on your credit reports — and whether you need to dispute anything.
Identity Guard and IdentityForce both combine your three credit reports into a side-by-side comparison report, which makes it slightly easier to compare information collected by each bureau. However, the services don’t contextualize that information, which means you’re still doing the work of translating credit-report-ese into comprehensible language.
AnnualCreditReport.com, of course, does none of that. You get your three credit reports for free, and you’re on your own.
MyFICO’s Score Simulator shows you what you can do right now to improve your credit.
This is my favorite myFICO feature. The Score Simulator allows you to test out various scenarios that might affect your credit, from applying for a new credit card to making your next few payments on time instead of late. (MyFICO doesn’t judge.) If you’re thinking about applying for a home loan, myFICO gives you a list of credit-building actions to consider (and simulate) so you can see what your credit score might look like three months down the road.
You’ll notice, as you use the Score Simulator, that each of the three credit bureaus treats these actions slightly differently. Consolidating my credit card balances, for example, might make my TransUnion score go up by 10 points and my Experian score go down by 10 points.
If you’re curious about why doing something like consolidating your debt can make one credit score go up and another credit score go down, it’s because the three bureaus each analyze and value credit data differently. (For more on that subject, read myFICO’s “Why are my scores different for the 3 credit bureaus?”)
If you want to get your credit score as high as possible, maybe because you’re apartment-hunting or shopping for a loan, take some time to figure out exactly which steps will get you there. (The Score Simulator lets you combine actions into multi-step scenarios, like “pay down your debt” followed by “increase your credit limit.” It’s that thorough.) Even if you only have one month to improve your credit, myFICO can help you boost that score.
Identity Guard and IdentityForce both offer credit simulator tools, but they don’t include myFICO’s graphics and they don’t give you as many simulation options. They also don’t suggest steps to take before applying for a mortgage or an auto loan. You can still test scenarios and their potential effects on your credit score, but the tools aren’t as versatile as the one myFICO offers.
MyFICO graphs your credit score’s ups and downs.
MyFICO and Identity Guard both include mobile apps that allow you to view your credit score and receive alerts, but myFICO’s app has an extra feature: a graph that illustrates how your credit score changes from day to day. (This graph is also available in the desktop interface.)
My TransUnion score, for example, went up after I made my monthly credit card payments and went down after I charged a few purchases to my credit cards. My Equifax score went up and stayed up. My Experian score didn’t change.
If you’re right between two credit categories (like “good” vs. “very good”), you can use these graphs — and the data they provide about why your credit score changed — to bump your credit score up into the higher category right before you fill out an apartment application or do something else that might involve a credit score check. Even if you’re not on the cusp of a better credit category, it’s still fun to watch the numbers go up and down. MyFICO is the only service I tested that provided a credit score graph, which is one more reason why it was my top pick.
MyFICO made it very easy for me to start the dispute process for the one error I found on my Equifax report (it listed a former address as my current one). I followed a link from myFICO to Equifax’s site, and from there followed the instructions to file a dispute — and learned that this error appeared to have already been resolved. Credit reports are constantly pulling in new information about you, so it looked like Equifax had already figured out its mistake. If the error hadn’t been resolved, it would have been relatively simple to submit my current address; after that, it’s on the credit bureaus to confirm the information and update the credit report (or deny the dispute request).
All of the services I tested included links and/or instructions to help you dispute errors on your credit report. MyFICO provided the most visible links, although Identity Guard provided the most thorough instructions. (It was through Identity Guard, not myFICO, that I learned that the bureaus are supposed to respond to credit report disputes within 30 days, as well as what to do if you don’t get a response or if you disagree with the response.) However, it’s worth noting that when it came time to file my own dispute, I clicked the link at myFICO because it was the biggest.
MyFICO monitors your credit — and your day-to-day transactions.
MyFICO keeps an eye on your credit report for any changes that might represent potential identity theft, such as a new credit inquiry or an address change. It also tracks your day-to-day transactions, kind of like Mint, YNAB, or other personal finance tools — but myFICO doesn’t care if you stick to your budget. MyFICO just wants to make sure that every transaction that hits your credit cards or bank accounts is actually yours.
Both myFICO and IdentityForce offer transaction monitoring — Identity Guard does not — and I should mention at this point that I almost neglected to set up myFICO transaction monitoring because its dashboard was a little cluttered and my eyes never went to the below-the-fold, off-to-the-side spot that told me the feature wasn’t turned on. However, once I got the monitoring set up, I found, once again, that myFICO was offering the superior monitoring tool.
With myFICO, you can set up alerts to notify you every time one of your accounts has a transaction over a certain dollar amount. That’s what IdentityForce offers too, but here’s where myFICO does it one better: With myFICO, you can also set up balance change alerts to flag any unusual spending patterns. The idea is that if you usually put $200-250 on your credit card every month, myFICO will let you know if there are charges over that amount. Those charges just might be from an identity thief. (Even though they’re probably from you.)
MyFICO alerts you of potential identity theft threats.
On the subject of identity theft: MyFICO also constantly searches black market websites for your personal information. Identity Guard and IdentityForce also scan black market websites, but myFICO was the only service that sent me any black market alerts during the testing period.
This isn’t to say that I was 100 percent thrilled with myFICO’s black market monitoring. During the testing period, I received four alerts indicating my information had been found on a black market website. Three of the alerts were out-of-date — like, myFICO wanted me to know that one of my passwords had passed through a black market website in 2013 — but one of them was current.
The trouble was that I couldn’t tell what information had been stolen. MyFICO’s alert explained that my email address and one of my passwords had been spotted on a black market site, and that I needed to change my password, but it didn’t give me enough information to determine which password it was. (All I got was the big long string of letters and numbers that websites use to hide my password, not the actual password I had created.)
So I called myFICO’s customer service, conveniently open 24/7, and spoke to a person who told me which password it was. All in all, this wasn’t a great experience. I didn’t like that I couldn’t tell which of my passwords had been stolen, and I didn’t like receiving notifications that one of my passwords might have hit a black market site in the past. (I do mean notifications, by the way. Every time I received a message from myFICO, I got it via text, email, and app alert, simultaneously. If you use myFICO, I suggest turning at least one of those notification tools off.)
Still, I liked that customer service was open 24/7, and I liked that they were able to immediately address my problem. I also appreciate that MyFICO was the only service to warn me of a potential identity threat alert, even though it could have skipped the alerts from events that are now several years behind us.
MyFICO includes an educational blog and an active forum.
Here’s one more thing that MyFICO does better than its competitors: personal finance education.
Identity Guard, IdentityForce, and myFICO all have educational resources and articles, but Identity Guard’s and IdentityForce’s resources are written to provide information rather than inspiration. MyFICO includes a personal finance blog with posts like “Does your credit impact your health?” and “The do’s, don’ts, and what-ifs when choosing a credit card.” It’s not The Simple Dollar, but it’s a great resource — and so is the MyFICO forum, where you can talk to other forum members about personal finance issues. (There’s a whole section devoted to relationships and money.)
With its Score Simulator, its forum, and the tight watch it keeps on your transactions and personal information, myFICO is ready to be the credit mentor you’ve always wanted. Just call it your credit score Dumbledore.
Best Credit Report Site Honorable Mentions
AnnualCreditReport.com is the free credit report site developed as a response to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, aka FACTA. The federal government and the credit bureaus agreed that all of us have the right to one free credit report from each of the three bureaus every year, and AnnualCreditReport.com is where you go to get them.
Can you get by with just AnnualCreditReport.com? Absolutely. Ryan Guina, founder of Cash Money Life and The Military Wallet, explains: “Many people do well with pulling one of their three credit reports every four months. This way you are constantly checking for errors throughout the year and do not get blindsided by a poor score when you need your credit.”
Be aware that the free version is a little more labor-intensive. AnnualCreditReport.com is super bare-bones, and the website looks like it hasn’t been updated much since 2003. The site provides a few educational resources, but you have to do the work of pulling your credit reports — which only takes roughly 10 minutes, but still — and scanning them for errors and potential identity theft issues yourself. You also have to remember to check one of your three credit reports every four months, if that’s your plan.
IdentityForce provides all of the essential tools you need to monitor your credit report and boost your credit score. It’s got credit report monitoring, transaction monitoring, identity theft monitoring, and a simulator to let you see how opening new credit cards or transferring balances might affect your credit score. But none of its features are better than the competitors, and at $24 per month for the package that offers daily credit monitoring, it’s about $9 more each month than Identity Guard and only $6 less than myFICO. It offers transaction monitoring, but not balance change monitoring; it has a credit simulator, but the simulator doesn’t have graphics, and it doesn’t have a mobile app. I elected to give IdentityForce an honorable mention.
Don’t discount credit report sites just because you’re on a budget. The best credit report sites are worth the money.
I know The Simple Dollar is all about thrift, so I asked Joe Saul-Sehy, host of the Stacking Benjamins podcast and former financial advisor, why all of us budget-minded individuals should pay a little extra for one of the best credit report services, which will be a few dollars more each month when compared to the lesser quality options. Here’s his response:
“Great question, and ALWAYS the first question you should ask yourself before using an add-on service. ‘Am I getting more for the extra premium I’m paying?’ In the case of myFICO, you get ongoing credit monitoring, so that if someone dings your credit report, you receive notification of the event immediately and some steps to help you resolve the issue. There are also credit suggestions to help you raise your credit score. Identity Guard not only looks at your credit score, but also monitors black markets and exchanges to quickly alert you if your identity or credit accounts have been compromised.”
Since myFICO, Identity Guard, and IdentityForce all offer monthly subscriptions, you could sign up for a credit report site for just a few months, check your credit report, dispute errors, and run a few simulations. That would be the thrifty way to get the benefits of a credit report site without paying for a long-term subscription. If you like what you’re getting, or want to spend more time focusing on improving your credit score, you might decide that the credit report site is worth the money.
Think of credit report sites as “preventative maintenance.”
Even if your credit is good, you can still benefit from a credit report site. Here’s more great advice from Saul-Sehy:
“I’m a proponent of preventative maintenance … so I want to consider my credit reporting service before I need it. That means that, early on, I want to know how to look at my credit, scour through details on the report, and how to interpret my score. Those are all easier activities to learn than they sound. It’s like riding a bike.
By starting early you’ve accomplished a few things.
- You know how credit works so you’re less likely to get into trouble or be surprised later.
- You’ll take actions that improve your credit intentionally instead of accidentally backing into good credit.
- When you need credit, it’s always available.
Plus, you’re less likely to need it often because you’ll see early on how much a poor credit score can hurt you.”
I really appreciated the insight into my credit that I got while testing different credit report services, especially the myFICO tools that showed me just how much my credit score went up and down each month, and how it could continue to go up if I kept paying off my debt. I understand my credit report and my credit score, and what I need to do to, as Saul-Sehy puts it, “improve my credit intentionally.”
Don’t let a credit repair company ruin your credit.
If you’re considering using a credit repair company to improve your credit, be aware that there are a lot of unscrupulous credit repair services out there. It will also cost you hundreds of dollars for a service that might not actually do you that much good. The Simple Dollar has a guide explaining how to tell if a credit repair company is a scam, and I’d suggest reading that thoroughly before signing up with any sites. (Beware of any company that claims it can give you a “new credit identity,” because that identity is very likely to be stolen.)
Even the good credit repair companies are only going to be able to do the same kinds of things you can do on your own, like analyzing your report for errors and starting the dispute process.
You can improve your credit in the short term, but it’s also important to think long term.
When you start poking around a credit report site, you’re probably interested in how to get that credit score up as soon as possible. There are a lot of ways to improve your credit in the short term, but it’s important to know that your credit is also likely to slowly improve over the long term if you continue to practice good credit habits.
There’s also this thing called “aging your credit,” which essentially means that the longer you have a credit account open and in good standing, the more influence it has on your credit score. (This is also why people advise you not to close out credit cards after you pay them off.) If you have negative items on your credit report, from late payments to bankruptcy, those items will have less influence on your credit score over time and many negative items disappear completely after seven years.
So think of what you can do today to improve your credit, but also think of what you want to start doing now to make sure that your credit looks good as it ages. If you need help, use one of those credit simulator tools I mentioned earlier, and see what might happen to your credit in the next few years.
Even if you’re already well-acquainted with your credit score, it’s still important to regularly review your credit report and monitor it for errors and potential identity theft. The best credit report sites take care of the monitoring for you while giving you tools and advice to help you improve your credit. If you’re looking to power-level your credit score, try myFICO. If you’d like a general monitoring package, consider Identity Guard. If you’re on a budget, go to AnnualCreditReport.com for your free annual credit reports — but make sure to read them carefully, because one out of five of us is likely to find an error.