US Government Requires Free Credit Reports for Consumers
How to View Your Free Credit Reports Every Year
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that U.S. consumers be entitled to a free credit report each year. The government’s goal is to make sure that consumers stay informed, fight identity theft, and get fair treatment.
In the past, it was not as easy to get this information for free. Consumers had to purchase reports or qualify based on certain activity within the credit report (such as being denied for a loan based on your score). Some states required that residents periodically be entitled to a free report, but federal law now makes it nationwide.
How do I Get my Free Credit Report?
The nation’s credit reporting agencies have teamed up and built a website that you should use to get your free credit report. The site is www.annualcreditreport.com. Once there, you'll answer a series of questions, and you can choose which reports to view. You can also call 877-322-8228 and request a copy of your credit reports by phone.
If you don't need all three at once, use some strategy to monitor your credit throughout the year.
You certainly can get all three at once, but some people only order one credit report at a time. That allows them to come back in a few months and order another report from a different credit agency. If anything has changed over those months (an attempt at identity theft, for example), the problem will be caught without the need to wait until next year.
There are differences among the credit agencies, but the differences are generally not huge -- any one of the three should be able to show you if somebody steals your identity by opening a credit card with a major carrier.
Contacting the Credit Agencies Directly
If you prefer, you can call the major credit agencies directly and request a credit report at no charge. However, the FCRA-mandated “Annual Free Credit Reports” are only available through the website and phone number above. In other words, you might have to pay if you contact a credit agency directly.
I cannot overemphasize that the only way to get your annual free credit report is to use AnnualCreditReport.com or the phone number above. If you go any other route, you may have to pay or subscribe to a private service.
- Learn more: How Credit Agencies Work
- Contact the credit bureaus:
What Information do I Need?
You’ll need to be prepared with your name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth. You’ll also need any prior addresses from the past few years. Finally, you’ll be asked to disclose something that only you know (like the amount of a given payment, for example) as a security measure.
When Can I See my Free Credit Report?
In order to manage the process, availability is only available to certain regions at certain times. As of September 1st, 2005, the entire nation has access to a free credit report.
If your region is up and running, you can see your free credit report instantly online (at www.annualcreditreport.com). If you use the toll-free number, it may be 15 days or so until you receive the report.
What Else Should I Know About Free Credit Reports?
The regulations only entitle you to get a free credit report - not a free score or any other service. As you order your reports, watch out for sneaky attempts to sell additional items that cost money.
If you want the nitty-gritty details, try these resources:
How About Free Credit Scores?
There is no such thing as a free government credit score.
Again, federal law currently provides free reports – but not the scores that are generated from the scores.
While going through the process of getting your free reports, you can purchase a credit score from each credit reporting agency if you want to – they will make it very easy to do so, and you’ll see several offers.
What’s the difference between scores and reports? A report contains the raw data – the information that lenders and government bodies report to the credit bureaus, including:
- Any loans you’ve used in the past
- Any loans you’re currently using
- If you’ve ever paid late on loans
- Any public records relevant to your credit
To get a credit score, a computer program reads that raw data from your reports, analyzes it, and spits out a score. Most lenders use credit scores so that employees don’t need to manually read through everything and evaluate credit reports. Learn more about credit scores.
Although you can’t get a score for free anytime you want it, there are ways to find out if you have relatively good or bad credit. You can often find out what your credit score is when you apply for a loan or open a bank account (but you probably need to ask – and you might not get any information about your credit depending on who you’re working with). Several websites also offer report cards and “unofficial” credit scores that can be helpful as well. For more details, see how to get free credit scores.