The Ins & Outs Of Getting And Using Your Free Credit Report

Regular readers of Consumerist know full well that those websites like FreeCreditReport.com and FreeScore.com (you’ll forgive us for not actually linking to them) are not exactly what their names might have you believe. But there are new consumers born every day, so it doesn’t hurt clarifying once again that there is only one place to score your credit reports with no strings attached.

AnnualCreditReport.com is the site you can go to in order to get reports from each of the three main bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — once per year for no cost.

You can get all your reports at once, but since you can only get the gratis reports once every 12 months, you may want to consider spacing them out.

For those of you that have questions about credit reports, our buttoned-down brothers and sisters at Consumers Union’s DefendYourDollars.org have put together a primer on the topic.

Why should I check my credit report?
“Your credit report has a huge impact on your life… People use your credit report to make big decisions about you,” writes CU. “When you apply for a loan, the lender will check your report to decide whether to approve you, and how much to charge you. If you’re applying for a job, buying insurance, or renting a home, someone may check your credit score, which is based on the information in your report.”

Credit reports are also good for spotting possible identity theft or for pinpointing errors in your credit history that could cause problems down the road.

Okay, I’ve got my free credit report. Now what?
“Read your entire report carefully, line by line, to see if all of the information about you is correct and up-to-date,” says CU. “If you find a mistake, contact the credit reporting company immediately. You should also contact the source that furnished the incorrect information to the company.”

While you may want to jump on the phone right away to resolve the error, the National Consumer Law Center recommends sending your requests to the credit reporting company in writing. You should also keep a file of all communications sent to and received from the company.

You will likely receive a dispute form from the company, which may include a “check box” list of dispute choices and limited space to describe your problem. Thus, the NCLC says you should include additional written details and any documents needed to make your point.

The Federal Trade Commission offers detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to fix mistakes on your credit report in this PDF.

In addition to errors in your credit report, be on the lookout for any accounts you don’t recognize. That is a good sign that someone may have stolen your ID and used it to open a new account in order to run up unpaid bills.

The FTC has a free site that tells you how to avoid ID theft and clean up your record.

When I get my free credit report, do I get a free credit score, too?
“Unfortunately, no. The law guarantees you a free credit report every 12 months, but the report doesn’t include your credit score,” explains CU. “If you want your credit score, you usually have to pay a fee or hand over your credit card and billing information for a ‘trial offer,’ and you may wind up with a score that some lenders don’t use.”

Each of the bureaus comes up with its own score, generally ranging on a scale from 300 to 900 points, and often the only way you can get that score for free is if you’re denied credit or a loan because of a low score. In that case, the bureau is legally obliged to provide you with a free copy of that score. However, that’s probably too late for you to be getting the information.

But both Consumerist and Consumers Union think it’s time to change that.

Go HERE to sign our petition to tell our leaders that we should be able to get a free copy of our credit scores — the same credible scores that lenders see — once a year, as part of our annual credit reports.

How to Get Your Free Credit Report [DefendYourDollars.org]