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You didn’t get into a credit mess overnight, so don’t expect to get out of it quickly. It will take time to bring your credit score up, but don’t let that deter you.

Credit scores are an integral part of life, yet the ratings remain a mystery to many. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Visa Inc. survey incorrectly believed that employment history was factored in; almost 59 percent mistakenly thought the interest rates on their current debts played a role.

The most commonly used scoring system is produced by FICO Inc. and uses a range between 300 and 850. An individual can have several FICO scores. That’s because the company creates a separate formula for scoring various types of lending - mortgages, credit cards, auto loans - as well as other financial transactions, such as insurance.

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All FICO scores weigh factors like payment history, amounts owed, length of credit history, how much new credit a borrower has sought recently, and the types of credit used (mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and so forth).

These details are on your credit report, compiled by credit reporting agencies. There are three main ones; Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

It’s important to know how the scores lenders use vary from the “educational’’ scores peddled by the credit reporting agencies and other companies, said Liz Weston, author of “Your Credit Score.’’

Educational scores will tell you the ballpark your credit history puts you in, but are not the scores banks use to make lending decisions. These scores also use a different scale. That means it’s important to make sure you’re clear about how an educational score relates to the range of FICO scores. Several websites charge for educational scores, but you can get a free one at www.creditkarma.com .

Here are some steps to improve your score:

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■Get a free copy of your credit reports via www.annualcreditreport.com. make sure all of the information is accurate, and check for items that could damage your score, such as outstanding bills and judgments against you.

Contact the agency about any mistakes, especially if you find accounts that are not yours.

■Whether you pay bills on time accounts for as much as 35 percent of a FICO score, the single biggest factor. Start making on-time payments on all your accounts this month. Even if you can just meet the minimum, you’ll be taking a big step.

■Come up with a plan to pay down as much debt as possible. tart with revolving debt like credit cards, then move to other borrowing like auto loans, advises Barry Paperno, of Myfico.com. By paying off debt, you reduce your credit utilization, or the percentage of available credit in use. This will help boost your score.

But don’t close any accounts, or you’ll reduce the amount of credit available, which could increase your utilization rate.

Avoid credit repair firms. They can’t do anything you can’t do yourself.


Eileen AJ Connelly writes for the Associated Press.