I’m sure you’ve heard time and time again how important it is to check your credit report regularly. Doing so can enable you to request that errors be corrected in a timely manner and can provide you with an early indication if you have become a victim of identity theft. It can also make it easy to see areas in which your financial wellness can use some adjusting.
Do not wait until you are applying for a mortgage or for credit to find out that your credit report isn't presenting you in a positive light. Straightening out errors and rectifying past-due debts can take months and may cost you the opportunity to buy a home or make a large purchase. It is best to be prepared so that everything is as it should be when you need it to be. Best of all, accessing your credit report once a year won’t cost you a thing.
Are Credit Reports Really Free?
In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) as an amendment to the Consumer Credit Protection Act of 1968. The FCRA states that you're entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report annually from each of the three nationally recognized reporting companies. These companies are Equifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®.
However, this isn't an automatic process. You have to actually request your reports each year in order to receive them. Although most people know that they should do this, many are unsure of how to proceed and leave this task on the back burner. The process of acquiring your free credit report is actually quite simple, as you will learn below.
How to Get all Three Credit Reports Online
When you go online, you're likely to find several sites that promise you a free copy of your credit report. However, many of these sites should be avoided. Some are companies that require you to purchase credit monitoring services or sign up for other services for which you'll be automatically billed unless you cancel them. Others may be phishing sites that trick you into giving up your personal information, including your Social Security number.
There is only one link you need, and that's www.AnnualCreditReport.com. This is a trusted and secure site. From this site, you can choose to access, download and print a copy of your credit report from any or all of the three credit reporting agencies.
Here is what you need to do:
- Step 1: Once on the site, click on the “Request your free credit reports” link.
- Step 2: Enter your personal information, including your full name, birth date, Social Security number and address. This is a secure site and you should feel safe entering this this type of information here.
- Step 3: Select which reports you would like to access (you may choose one, two or all three).
- Step 4: For each of the credit reports you are requesting, you'll need to answer four multiple choice questions that establish your identity.
- Step 5: View your report. You can print it or download it as a pdf file. If you don't print or save your report at this point, you may not be able to get access to it again for one year, so be sure to save it.
- Repeat Step 4 for each of the credit reports you're getting until you have accessed them all. Bear in mind, your four multiple-choice questions will be different for each of the three credit reports.
How to Get Your Credit Reports by Mail
While I prefer to download my reports, there are several reasons why you might want to have them sent to you by mail. These may include:
- You are not comfortable using computers or downloading files.
- You prefer not to enter your Social Security number and other personal information on a website.
- You are accessing the Internet using a public or work computer or using open Wi-Fi.
- Your home network isn't secured by firewalls or other protection.
- You want a printed copy of your report but don't have access to a printer.
Getting your credit report by mail is also easy. You can go to the www.AnnualCreditReport.com website to download and print the U.S. Mail Request Form, or if you prefer, you can simply call them at 1-877-322-8228 and have your transaction handled by phone. You will still need to go through an identity verification process.
How and Why to Stagger Your Credit Reports
One way to keep a very close eye on your credit reports is to stagger them. Instead of asking for copies of all three reports at the same time, you can request them separately at four-month intervals. This means, for example, that you could request your Equifax report on January 1, your Experian report on May 1 and your TransUnion report on September 1.
This method does require more work on your part, but if you want to carefully monitor your credit history, it's the best way to go. Be sure to mark your calendar so that you'll remember to request your reports on time each year.
What about My Credit Score?
Your credit score is not part of your credit report and you aren't entitled to get that for free. When you request your credit reports, you may be asked by the credit reporting agencies if you'd like to purchase your credit score as well.
One way to stay on top of your credit score without incurring extra charges is to get a credit card that provides your FICO credit score with each monthly billing statement. This extra service enables you to track any major changes to your score, but it may result in higher interest rates on your credit card if your score drops below a certain threshold. Therefore, if your credit isn't very good, you may want to forgo this service.
Stay on Top of Your Reports
Accessing your credit reports does require a bit of time and work on your part, but the process itself is relatively easy. Stop putting it off just because you aren't sure what to do. Also, be sure to speak with your local Trusted Choice® independent insurance agent to learn how an improvement in your credit score can translate to lower insurance rates.