OK, so you've got your credit report. Now you have to read it over and analyze it carefully for any errors, discrepancies, or data you didn't know about. Most credit reports are broken down into the following categories:

Personal Information This includes your name, address, Social Security number, and so on. Make sure all of this is correct and up-to-date. Credit problems and identity-theft scams often occur simply because credit agencies don't know where you live or where you work.

• Account Information or Credit Summary This is the rundown of your credit history, past and present. Any store cards (Banana Republic, Target, Wal-Mart) or credit cards appear on this record, even if they're closed. (Debit or ATM cards do not show up on credit reports, since using them draws directly from your bank account.) Check each account record for things like late payments, unpaid balances, and such. Make sure you have the card or account number handy -- the report will cross out some of the digits, and the CRA will not provide it to you if you request, thus requiring you to contact the merchant or bank personally.

Inquiries Inquiries can be broken down into "hard" and "soft" categories.

"Hard" inquiries are requests from vendors, banks, rental agencies, etc., for your credit history. Too many of these in a short span of time can actually downgrade your overall credit rating, so be very careful when shopping for a credit card or looking for a new place to live. Don't allow anyone to pull your credit unless you're absolutely sure it's solid, or you really want what they're offering.

"Soft" inquiries include promotions from vendors, pre-approved credit offers, and your own personal credit checks. Those do not cause you any difficulty, and you can check your own report as often as you can afford it.

• Public Records These cover bankruptcies, judgments, tax liens, and other government-related notices that affect your credit.

• Collections The nastiest section of all, this covers any repossessions, collection agencies or unpaid debts you may have or have had. These can stay on your reports for up to seven years, so that one unpaid utility bill from four years ago can still hurt you.

• Dispute File Information Here you can initiate a challenge to the CRA for them to update your records, remove inaccurate information, and so on. Despite what "credit repair agencies" may tell you, accurate negative information can't be easily removed, so don't try unless you are negotiating personally with a CRA. You can begin a dispute via email, phone, fax, or regular mail, and each agency provides listings of who to contact.

Next: Credit Scoring -- The Fickleness of FICO