4 Easy Ways for Young Adults to Get a Handle on Their Credit Scores

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Recent college grads, I know some of you thought your test-taking days were over, but I have one final pop quiz for you: It's a bit of a credit score challenge.

1. Who collects the information on which credit scores are most frequently based?
2. Does each consumer have just one generic credit score?
3. How important is it to check the accuracy of your credit reports at the three main credit bureaus?

If your answers were Experian, Equifax and TransUnion (the three main credit bureaus); no; and very, you'd have done well on the Credit Score Quiz conducted by VantageScore and the Consumer Federation of America. The recently released results show that consumer knowledge about credit scores improved significantly over the past year. And quiz takers in the youngest bracket -- ages 18 to 34 -- are overall more knowledgeable than any other group. "They are more likely to understand that if they have a low score, that would be very costly to them, and they're more aware of the ways to raise their score," says Stephen Brobeck, the CFA's executive director.

Unfortunately, those young people often carry some misconceptions that could make them easy prey for credit-related scam artists. When questioned about credit repair companies, which often promise to erase your bad credit, 60% said that they believe they are "always" or "usually" helpful. In reality, these companies very often make promises they can't keep.

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So how do you keep on top of your credit, at this crucial stage? After all, college graduates these days are walking across the stage with record levels of student loan debt. You may want to buy a car soon, and perhaps a house. You'll be getting married and climbing up the career ladder. (And, newsflash: many potential employers check applicants' credit reports.)

Here are four free tricks:

• Pull your credit report. Each credit bureau offers you one free credit report a year - so three total - through the website
annualcreditreport.com. Pull yours ASAP to see what others are seeing. And if you answered question number three above wrong, here's your chance to redeem yourself: Go over your report, highlight any mistakes, and then contact the bureau to help you fix them.

• View your FICO score. The FICO score is the gold standard, but it's not free. However, you can avoid charges by signing up for a free trial at myFICO.com. You won't pay a penny unless you fail to cancel your trial within 10 days, at which point you'll be locked in to a three-month minimum subscription to FICO's Score Watch (a credit monitoring and alert service) at $14.95 a month. In other words, set a reminder on every calendar you own, twice. If that's too risky for you, you can pull a close approximation of your score from CreditKarma.com or CreditSesame.com.

• Monitor it. CreditKarma.com also offers free credit monitoring, which will alert you if there are any major changes on your report. It can help you prevent identity theft, which can be severely damaging to your credit.

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• Use it. This might seem like a no brainer, but to have decent credit, you have to use credit. The best place to start when you're a young adult is with a credit card. Now that you know your score, you'll be able to estimate what kind of card you'd qualify for at a site like NerdWallet.com or LowCards.com. Choose one with a low interest rate and no annual fee, then use it and pay it off every single month.

-- With Arielle O'Shea