You keep hearing it over and over: check your credit report. But what is a credit report, and what does it mean?

Basically, it’s just like report cards you received in school, with some obvious differences. Your credit report will come from one of the three federally-regulated credit reporting agencies (CRA)—Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. The difference between this one and the one you got in school is that theCRAs are not required under the law to go and verify everything on your report…they’re just the guys who gather the data and share it with creditors you want to do business with.

When you see your credit report, it should contain your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, spouse’s name, and employer information. It should also have some of the previous known information, like former addresses and jobs. This top subset of information is actually very important stuff. When you see your credit report and it lists your correct Social Security number but contains two other addresses in states you’ve never even visited, let alone lived in, that’s a red flag that someone is using your Social Security number. Don’t just skim over the personal information section, but really read it.

From there, your report should contain information on your credit accounts for the past seven years, whether they’re still active or you’ve closed them. There will also be information on any judgments or liens against you, and again, this is a huge red flag area. If someone has used your information to open accounts or to default on those accounts, this section will tell you that.

Further down, you’ll see a section on creditors who’ve looked at your credit report, even if you don’t do business with them. This is the part that tells those credit card companies whether or not they want to mail you a promotional offer to get a new credit card. You’ll see a list of companies who’ve done their homework on you, but there’s no way to know or remember if they actually sent you the promotional offer or not.

Despite what the commercials with the singing pirates tell you, it’s not difficult to get your credit report. You can do so by contacting the CRA directly. Remember, three CRAs means three different credit reports. Since you’re entitled to one free report from each agency every year, here’s a little trick that can help you stay on top of your identity: request one report in January from one CRA, another one in May from a different one, and the last one in September. By the following January, you’ll be eligible for that first one again. Make this rotation a regular habit, and you’ll get an official look at your identity every four months. By the way, you’re also entitled to free reports if you’ve been the victim of identity theft and can provide a copy of the police report, or if you were turned down for a credit card. One thing everyone seems concerned about is the final piece of information: your credit score. That number determines how worthy you are from a financial standpoint. It’s basically a number that tells any potential creditors how likely you are to be a good risk. There can be some discrepancy between the three companies’ reports, but it shouldn’t be dramatic. If you suddenly receive a report with a huge drop in your score, something could be very wrong.

Finally, remember that there are humans involved in this process and mistakes can happen, even something as simple as a typo. Don’t ignore these little mistakes. Call the credit reporting company immediately—the phone number will be on the report—and get to the bottom of it.

If you found this information helpful, you may want to consider taking part in the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Anyone3 fundraising campaign.  For more information or to donate please visit