If you’re new to the wonderful world of consumerism, you need to know that credit reports list where you live and have lived, your bill payment history, whether you’ve filed for bankruptcy, and perhaps other personal details such as whether you’ve been sued or arrested. Such reports are sold to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that may use it to evaluate applications for credit, insurance, employment, or home rental. So it’s important to periodically review your reports for completeness and accuracy, rather than discovering something bad just when you need to look squeaky clean.
To fit on a small Post-It note, this article would need just one sentence: Accept no substitutes: visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com/. Though that would still be useful advice, online life is never that simple; rules fit on Post-Its but important details don’t.
This rule is needed because what should have been simple — the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) each required to provide free annual reports — has been distorted and perverted into ongoing scams. That’s why TV’s singing pirate waiters and other commercials for (allegedly) free credit reports end with unreadable text screens, demonstrating an industry milking consumer fears and misperceptions. These sites offer “free” reports in exchange for subscribing to billable services, often understating or hiding complex terms and conditions; failure to follow them precisely leads to unwanted – and perhaps unused – services, followed by bills.
Government-mandated reports aren’t just free, they involve no obligations to try credit monitoring/protection/notification schemes, pay for FICO (creditworthiness) scores, or establish any ongoing relationships with the agencies. That’s why you should only request your reports via the official Web site; or calling 877-322-8228; or printing the Annual Credit Report Request Form, filling it in, and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, POB 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
If you’ve added any sort of security or fraud alert/restriction to your credit report (as you should if you’ve ever been a credit fraud victim), online requests may not work but phone/mail requests will be honored. Don’t worry about privacy violations or being spammed; neither the official Web site or credit agencies will contact you beyond providing requested reports. So if you ever receive email, Web ads, or phone calls claiming to represent the official site or the three agencies, don’t answer questions, provide any information, or click links: they’re bogus.
Requests for reports require you to provide basic identity information: name, address, Social Security Number, and birth date. If you’ve moved recently, you may be asked for a previous address. And each agency may request (via multiple-choice questions) additional verification information such as your bank, mortgage payment amount, or employers. Reports requested online are sometimes available for immediate download; phone or mail requests may take two weeks for processing.
You need reports from all three agencies to check your complete credit history because they each use different data sources and have different policies for validating, correcting, and retaining information. To maintain better awareness of what’s in your files, rather than
requesting all three reports simultaneously, once a year, it’s worth rotating requests through the year, getting a different report every
The Federal Trade Commission’s Web site gives full information on credit report regulations — such as when you’re entitled to additional free reports – and how to correct or complete credit report information.
Finally, it’s also easy to check your credit score for free. Visit one or more reporting agency Web sites – TransUnion, Experian, Equifax – or another credit score site and search for free trial offers. Various opportunities exist to access credit scores for limited periods without fees. Since scores are relatively stable, there’s generally no need to monitor them closely or over time. So sign up, print reports available, and cancel your account before the trial expires and billing occurs. Of course, keep records of enrollment/cancellation and watch for incorrect billing. But since increased government regulation and supervision began, the agencies seem to make fewer “mistakes” such as billing after trial accounts are canceled, and to be more responsive to complaints.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org when you use it.