The Checkout

Check Out Your Credit Report

It's been more than a year now since the government started rolling out a program giving consumers free annual credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus. Residents in the West coast were the first to have access to their reports, and finally last September, East coast residents--and everyone in between--were able to check their credit history annually.

The credit reports were mandated by Congress three years ago to reduce the incidence of identity theft. By checking your credit history regularly, you should be able to spot any suspicious activity, such as a new credit card account that you never requested.

So if you haven't done so--start checking your reports NOW. Many consumer advocates suggest that if you haven't had a particular problem, then just get one report now, and if it's clean, wait another four months before scrutinizing one from another bureau. If that's clean, wait an additional four months for the last report. Then repeat the same cycle the next year. Of course if you do spot problems, then you probably should check all of the reports at the same time.

How do you do this? It's pretty easy. You can do it through the mail or call a toll-free number--or download your report online. All the information you need is on the special Internet site set up for the free reports, annualcreditreport.com. BUT CAUTION: if you mistype the name, by just one letter, you may get an imposter site that has been designed to look like the officially sanctioned one. These, in themselves, can lead to identity theft! The Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on these fraudulent sites and the agency last week said there's been a significant decrease in them. But be careful--and to be extra safe, you may want to go to the FTC's site first (that has fewer letters to mistype!) and find the link there to get your annual report (or simply click on it from here).

Another word of warning: Some of the sites offer all sorts of added for-fee services. You don't have to pay for these! Additionally, many consumers have complained about difficulties in getting credit reports. Keep trying--and if you continue having problems, I'd love to hear about it. Please e-mail me at thecheckout@washpost.com

Still another cautionary note: If you don't speak English, it can be even more challenging to get your credit reports, a problem noted by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Report. Consumers Union last week said millions of Spanish-speaking consumers are having difficulties getting their free reports because none of the three credit bureaus have been required to make the process bilingual. The group called on the three bureaus to do so voluntarily--because the FTC has no plans to mandate such a requirement.

The FTC said requiring more than English was too much of a burden to ask the credit bureaus last year when the program was starting, and there are no immediate plans to make them do so now. But the agency pointed to Spanish language educational materials that would help Spanish-speaking consumers more easily obtain their own reports.

By  |  January 24, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Consumer Tips
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Comments

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As usual, the author neglects to mention that your credit SCORE is the determinant factor in your credit history and access to this is not free.

Posted by: anonymous | January 24, 2006 10:09 AM

The reason to check your report is to identify identity theft and correct mistakes. It is not to check on your credit worthiness.

Posted by: Jack | January 24, 2006 11:53 AM

Actually Jack, it's both. I'd never go to make a purchase requiring a loan (such as a car or a house) before knowing what my credit report looked like, and what my credit score was.

Posted by: C Martinez | January 24, 2006 12:39 PM

Thanks for your very useful rept. Would you or WashingtonPost provide a more compact printer-friendly format/layout to be printed ? Tom H

Posted by: Tom | January 24, 2006 1:42 PM

I tried out this site and found that I was required to provide considerably more information than I thought necessary and, additionally, felt that there was a high degree of likelihood that my name would be circulated to commercial enterprises as a future marketing target. As this site is frequently advertised on the media I can only assume that it really isn't "free" but will provide commercially useful information to those providing the credit information. I bailed out several minutes into the process.

Posted by: tim | January 24, 2006 2:43 PM

Like a sucker I filled out the form, which took me to Transunion's website where I got a message saying that for security reasons my report couldn't be provided online and that I needed to go back to the original site to order by mail of phone. When I went back to the site my only option was to order a "free report" from one of the other two credit bureaus. I bailed at that point, going to the site is a waste of time.
Last year I ordered my free credit reports via the 800 number and they contained my credit score. Haven't gotten one this year, so don't know about that these days.

Posted by: Glen | January 24, 2006 3:49 PM

Last year I used the website to order my credit reports. I did not like the fact that I had to order give a credit card number to Experian to get my report.

This year I used the 800 number that was printed in a Post article last year. Much faster and easier than last year. Later in the year I plan on using the 800 number for the other 2 reports.

Posted by: Nat | January 25, 2006 3:10 AM

The whole "free" credit reports thing is still a disaster as far as I'm concerned.

The site
does not work if it doesn't like your IP address...so I can't get to it from my
home computer. I finally got to the site through my connection at the office, just to have the one credit company site ask for
passwords etc that I didn't have...it insisted I already had an "account" (maybe because I filed a fraud complaint a little
over a year ago?)

Until there are laws such that:
the credit companies have to PAY each individual to keep a file on them
to PAY each individual to disemminate that file
to be held LIABLE for incorrect information contained in that file
and last, to be fined some huge amount, like $100,000 or more per each individual violation of any of the above...

until the above all occur, these companies are just performing an invasion of privacy on a scale never seen before. It makes
the Bush administration look like saints.

thanks for reading my rant
Jeff L

Posted by: Jeff L | January 25, 2006 5:43 PM

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