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

credit cardsRecent 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.

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.

Top Signs You May Have Been a Victim of ID Theft
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4 Easy Ways for Young Adults to Get a Handle on Their Credit Scores
By Lita Epstein, credit and debt expert, WalletPop.com

When even the announcer of the The Price Is Right is a victim of identity theft, you know the crime can happen to anyone. Rich Fields, of "Come on down" fame, reportedly had $71,000 stolen and had to freeze his accounts ' including his direct deposit of his pay -- while he tries to recover the money. At least he got wise to the problem.

One of the scariest things about identity theft is that you could be a victim and not even know it. Identity theft includes any act in which your identity is used fraudulently. I'm sure you've head of credit card fraud, where someone opens an account in your name or uses your credit card number without your permission. But other common identity theft scams include bank account fraud, phone or utilities fraud, government documents fraud and Social Security fraud.

In this feature, we list four red flags that can signal that you are a victim of identity theft.

First Up: Red Flag No. 1

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Your credit cards or other bills don't arrive when you expect them.

A thief could have changed your address with a financial institution and started using your credit card. Since the bills are no longer coming to your address, it will take longer for you to figure out the problem. Most financial institutions allow you to look at your accounts online. Do so regularly to avoid this problem. If you see charges you don't recognize, call your bank's customer service line immediately.

Next: Red Flag No. 2

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You start to receive credit cards for accounts you didn't open yourself.

A thief may have responded to a credit card offer using your name and credit history and been planning to intercept the card from your mailbox.

Don't hesitate one second. Call the financial institution that issued the card immediately and explain that the account was opened fraudulently.

Next: Red Flag No. 3

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You are denied credit even though you know you have a good credit history.

Whenever you are denied credit -- for whatever reason -- you are entitled to free copies of your credit reports from each of the three top credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. As part of that denial, you should get a letter that tells you how to obtain those free credit reports. Take advantage of this law and review your credit report to see what the problem is. If you find fraudulent accounts on your report, follow the instructions that explain how to get them removed.

Next: Red Flag No. 4

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You get a call from a store about a purchase you know you didn't make.

If you do get this type of call, don't give out any information because the call could be a phishing attempt (that's when thieves pretend to be calling or emailing from a store or bank in hopes you will disclose personal financial information ' like your Social Security number or bank account password).

Find out as many details about the purchase as you can, as well as the caller's name and contact information. Look up a contact number yourself. Call the company after you've checked it out. Only after you know the company is legitimate should you give out any personal information. Then, call your credit card company and let them know that your card was used fraudulently.

Next: Here's What to Do If You Are a Victim

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Any time you suspect fraud you should place a fraud alert with all three credit reporting agencies. They will place a 90-day alert on your account, which can be extended. They will also send you a copy of your report to be sure there aren't other problems. These are the contact numbers to report fraud:

' Equifax - 1-800-525-6285
' Experian - 1-888-397-3742
' TransUnion - 1-800-680-7289

You can never err by being too cautious. It's better to report a possible fraud attempt and be wrong, than not to report one and allow a problem to continue to grow and fester.

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• 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
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