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Mint.com Facebook Fan Q&A: Should I Claim My Credit Reports All at Once or Throughout the Year?

The following question came in via the Mint.com Facebook page. If you’ve got a credit related question you want answered, ask away!

Question: “Is it better to check all three agency’s credit reports at the same time each year or stagger checking them so it’s one every four months?” -Sandy

Answer: This is a very good question, if for no other reason than it suggests Sandy is one of the few consumers who claim their free credit reports pursuant to Federal law.

I’ve reported on this fact in the past: only 4% of free credit reports get claimed each year, which is just dismal.

Here are my thoughts on the topic: if you have no reason to believe that your credit reports have errors and you’re also not in the market to finance anything large, like a car or a house, then I like the idea of staggering your free credit reports to one every few months rather than claiming all three of them at one time.

And, because the annual credit report law is “every 12 months” rather than every calendar year, you can start the stagger any time you like.

If you were to claim all three of them at the same time, you’d likely see that the information on all three of the reports is very similar.

So, there’s really no value to claiming all of them at once, unless you really want to see essentially the same thing three times.

The Downside of the Stagger Strategy

There is a hole in the stagger strategy though. If you have a creditor that reports to just one or two of the credit bureaus, instead of all three, you’ll have to wait until you claim one of those reports to see how your account is being reported.

Also, if you’ve been the victim of fraud, you may not be able to see the evidence by looking at only one of your credit reports at a time.

The first thing that shows up on a credit report when you’ve applied for credit, or when someone else has applied for credit in your name, is the infamous credit inquiry, which I wrote about for Mint, here.

Most lenders only pull one of your credit reports, so the inquiry will only show up on that particular credit report.

For example, if you’ve applied for credit with a lender who pulled your Equifax credit report, you won’t see the inquiry by looking at your Experian or TransUnion credit reports.

The same applies to cases of true name credit fraud. If a fraudster applies for a credit card or loan in your name and the lender only pulls your TransUnion credit report, you won’t know about it by looking at your Experian or Equifax reports.

When You Want to Claim Your Reports All at Once

Now, if you’ve decided to finance a house, I’d suggest claiming all three of your reports at once and well before you start shopping around for the best deal.

Not only is every basis point on a mortgage loan going to save you big bucks over time, but mortgage lenders do what no other lenders do: they pull all three of your credit reports and base their decision on the aggregate of information, including your numeric middle credit score.

So, in this one case I’d say go for it — claim them all.

If you’re in the market for an auto loan, it’s probably not a bad idea to claim all three of your credit reports, too.

Even though auto lenders only pull one of your three credit reports, you won’t know which of the three they’re going to pull. So in the interest of playing it safe, three is better than one.

Now, if you already know where you’re going to get your auto financing AND you’re able to find out where they get their credit reports, you can go ahead and pull that particular report in advance. That’s strategic shopping at its best!

John Ulzheimer is the President of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com, the credit blogger for Mint.com, and a contributor for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.  He is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft. Formerly of FICO, Equifax and Credit.com, John is the only recognized credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. The opinions expressed in his articles are his and not of Mint.com or Intuit. Follow John on Twitter.