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Free Credit Reports: What's the Catch?

Christine DiGangi

Consumers are entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. AnnualCreditReport.com is the place to go for those reports.

A lot of companies offer free credit reports on a trial basis or as part of a paid product, like credit monitoring. Those reports are just as good as the ones through AnnualCreditReport.com, but when it comes to the truly free report guaranteed to you by federal law, consumers shouldn’t confuse those other sites with AnnualCreditReport.com.

Accessing Your Report

Make sure you’re on the right website when requesting your credit reports. Fraudsters want to steal the personal information you enter on AnnualCreditReport.com, so there are dummy sites out there designed to fool you and capture your sensitive information. Additionally, you ca n request your report by phone (877-322-8228). Either way, you’ll also need to answer some security questions about your credit history.

Don’t be alarmed if you’re unable to access your reports online — you could be denied digital access if you miss a question or if the verifying algorithm suggests there’s not enough information available to confirm your identity. You’ll receive information for requesting your credit reports by mail. You’ll have to pay postage (and it’s smart to send the form as Certified Mail, which is more secure than regular post), but otherwise, the report is still free.

Know Your Options

Depending on your state’s laws, you may be able to access free credit reports more often than just once a year. You’re also entitled to free credit reports if you’ve been denied credit, so you can see why you’ve been rejected. Otherwise, if you want to check your credit reports multiple times a year, you’ll probably have to pay for them.

You also shouldn’t confuse credit reports with credit scores: Scores are based on credit report information, but the score gives you an idea of your credit standing. You can tell if you have good credit by looking at your credit report, but it requires a good understanding of how creditworthiness is determined and how different credit behaviors are weighed by potential lenders.

If you want to know whether you have good credit, it helps to review your credit reports and credit scores together. For example, with a Credit.com account, you get a free snapshot of your credit standing in addition to free credit scores. If that information says you need to improve your payment history or debt use, you can look at your credit report and see which accounts have late payments and which credit cards have high balances, relative to your credit limit. By putting the pieces together, you can make a plan to improve your credit by addressing the problems highlighted by your reports and scores.

When working to improve your credit, it helps to consult a variety of tools. Take note: Credit reports and credit scores change frequently, because your creditors often send updated information to the credit reporting agencies, so focus on the things that determine your credit scores, not on the numbers themselves.

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