We've all seen the ads for "free credit reports" in our email and on various websites.
But are most free credit report offers real?
Unfortunately, most are not actually free. In fact, most require a monthly "credit monitoring" or other fee - one that most people really don't need.
Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) consumers can request and obtain a free credit report once every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies - Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
To get your copy, visit http://www.AnnualCreditReport.com and you can order your credit report online. Or if you prefer, you can make your request by phone or mail.
Other websites that claim to offer "free credit reports," "free credit scores," or "free credit monitoring" are not part of the legally mandated free annual credit report program.
So don't get taken by these other offers.
What should you do if you find any wrong or damaging information on your credit report?
Contact the credit bureau that issued the report in writing (you can also file a dispute online.) Be specific about what you think should be removed, and provide an explanation. By law, the credit reporting agencies must investigate your dispute within 30 days, and notify you in writing - if the information cannot be verified as correct, it must be removed.
One way to monitor your own credit throughout the year is to order one credit report at a time, wait a few months, then order the next. While not all creditors report to each of the 3 major credit bureaus, this will give you a good idea about any changes in your credit.
What about your credit score?
Unfortunately, your credit score is not considered a part of your free credit report, and must be purchased separately. In most cases you do not need to order your credit score frequently, although it is a good idea to know your score before you apply for any major credit purchases.
Does credit repair work?
Credit repair does work. The credit reporting agencies must remove any items that are incorrect. And there is nothing that prevents you from disputing any item on your credit report that you consider to be damaging. While the credit reporting agencies have no obligation to remove any items just because it hurts your credit, many individuals are able to get damaging items removed from their credit report, and improve their credit score, just by asking for the item to be verified.
But be careful - there are many companies that will charge you a fee, basically to do what you can do on your own. And beware of any company that offers to create a new identity or credit file for you, as this is fraud, and can get YOU in trouble.
The best way to protect your credit is to be an informed consumer!