So your credit score is shot to pieces and you can't even sign up for electricity. All too often Kiwis have no idea how simple actions such as missing a bill payment or two can torpedo their credit.

Banks, utilities and retailers can and do check your score before offering loans or goods and services on credit.

Credit agencies have a score for almost every adult alive in this country and their algorithms are designed to show how risky you might be as a customer.

There are many things Kiwis don't know about credit scores:

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• Three separate agencies hold personal information about you. Equifax (called Veda until recently), Dun & Bradstreet and Centrix each hold records about you and me. They know where we've sought credit and how well we pay our bills.

• Borrowing can help your credit score. It came as a shock to me years ago that someone who borrowed money might have a better credit score than I did. My problem is I've never used hire purchase, car loans or overdraft except when I was a student.

Dun & Bradstreet's Credit Simple spokesperson Hazel Phillips says: "As unintuitive as that might sound, potential credit providers want to see that you've got a history of paying your bills."

• Your credit history is broader than you think. Fortunately for me credit scores are also based on paying your bills.

"A lot of people think they don't have a credit history at all, because they've never had anything on hire purchase or used a credit card," says Phillips. "But actually, your credit history includes a lot of other things, such as power and phone accounts, mobile phone, internet and personal loans."

• Making too many applications will damage your score. You think you're only shopping around, but you're making yourself look desperate for money.

• Landlords can check your credit score. In a crowded rental market where landlords can choose between multiple applicants, having a good credit score could help you leapfrog over a prospective tenant with a blighted past.

• Employers can check you out, too. However, the applicant does need to consent before a credit check is undertaken, says employment lawyer Jennifer Mills of Anthony Harper. That's not just for people who handle money. Someone who pays bills religiously is likely to be a diligent staff member as well.

• Nobody can check your file without permission except the Government. I did a double take when Phillips mentioned this because employers, banks, landlords, utilities companies and others all access your record. But you sign forms allowing them to do so. The Government doesn't need permission.

Someone who pays bills religiously is likely to be a diligent staff member.

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• Your court judgments and bankruptcies will be on your credit file. "So anything out there online or in court databases about you will most likely also appear on your credit history," says Phillips.

• Defaulting on bill payments is one of the worst things you can do. Paying bills late and defaulting is a real killer. And don't even think about letting those debts go to collections. "We often talk to people who are surprised they've got a score of zero when they haven't had something seriously bad, such as a bankruptcy, happen," says Phillips.

• Your credit score can be interpreted differently. Centrix, for example, supplies most of the energy companies with the same data on individuals, says managing director Keith McLaughlin.

Each energy supplier, however, interprets the data according to its own rules, meaning a customer turned down by one might be accepted by another.

• Everyone is entitled to see their own credit file for free. Each of the agencies has a different process and there is always a free option. For Dun & Bradstreet go to CreditSimple.co.nz and for Equifax visit Mycreditfile.co.nz.

• You can get the information changed in certain circumstances. Administrative errors and fraud lead to mistakes and you have the right to have this information corrected.

You can complain to the Privacy Commission if you're not happy with the conclusion of a request for correction. You can even apply to have your credit record suppressed short term or permanently, says McLaughlin. That usually happens in identity theft cases.

• You can be affected by sexually transmitted debt. Your partner or an ex who you borrowed with in the past can affect your credit record. So ask them about their credit score on the first date. If you split up, make sure you are released from the guarantee by the lender. Those guarantees are lifelong, unless you take action.

Lastly, if you do have black marks, you can improve your score one payment at a time by making sure you pay each and every bill in full by the due date.