How to get free credit reports

Figures holding magnifying glass over credit report

You can get one free copy of your credit report every year from each of the big three credit-reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

But you can't do that through their websites. (They'll charge you.)

You must use AnnualCreditReport.com.

The credit bureaus created it to comply with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, the federal law that requires them to provide free credit reports to anyone who asks.

Other heavily publicized Web sites may claim to offer free credit reports -- Freecreditreport.com is the most obvious and misleading example. But when you read the fine print, you'll only get a "free" credit report when you agree to buy one or more of their services.

At AnnualCreditReport.com, credit histories are available immediately online.

You can also print out forms to mail in or call 1-877-FACTACT (1-877-322-8228) to request copies of your credit reports. But if you order by mail or phone, expect to wait more than two weeks for delivery.

The credit agencies used to bombard consumers trying to use AnnualCreditReport.com with come-ons for costly extras such as credit scores, credit monitoring services and debt analysis.

The buttons that led to the free credit reports used to be hard to find, while the buttons selling the profitable services were big and red.

The Federal Trade Commission put an end to that, and now the box leading you to the free reports is prominent at the top of the page. Any advertising for paid products is no longer offered until after the link to the free report.

In addition, a law that went into effect in 2010 also requires commercial sites to prominently disclose to consumers that they are entitled to a free report and where to get it. On these sites, look for a box with language like this: "You have the right to a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com or 877-322-8228, the ONLY authorized source under federal law."

Just remember, if you're being asked for a credit card number, you've stumbled into something that costs money and you don't need. Hit that "back" button and get out of there.

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