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Consumers in most U.S. states can now get free credit reports

Guide on how to order your free credit report, review it, correct mistakes & ID theft tips.

Updated June 15, 2005

Consumers in most U.S. states can now get free credit reports

East coast states will get free credit reports starting September 1

Consumers in Western, Midwestern, and Southern states are now eligible to take advantage of a new federal law that gives them free access to their credit reports each year. East coast consumers along with those living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories will get access to free credit reports when the law is fully implemented on September 1.

Free credit reports are the result of a federal law, known as the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), adopted by Congress in 2003. Careful monitoring of credit reports is an important way by which consumers can detect whether they have become a victim of identity theft. Recent news reports have highlighted how companies like ChoicePoint, Inc. have put millions of consumers at risk of identity theft because of lax data security practices.

The free credit reports are being implemented in four phases. They became available to consumers in Western states last December, Midwestern consumers on March 1 and residents of Southern states on June 1.

On September 1, residents of Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico and all U.S. territories will also be able to obtain the right to order a free copy of their credit report.

“Now more than ever before, it’s critical to check your credit report regularly to make sure it’s accurate and to detect possible identity theft,” says Norma Garcia, Senior Attorney for Consumers Union. “This new law makes it easier for consumers to monitor their reports to ensure that they offer a fair picture of their credit history.”

In addition to the free annual credit report, the new federal law gives identity theft victims, and those with a good faith belief that they are about to become victims, the right to place a 90-day initial fraud alert on their credit file. All consumers who do so are entitled to a free credit report. Initial fraud alerts instruct creditors to exercise more care to verify the identity of the credit applicant. Identity theft victims may choose an extended fraud alert good for seven years.

Having good credit can mean the difference between paying a high or a low interest rate for a loan or whether consumers are offered insurance, jobs, or housing. To help consumers take advantage of this new law, Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports has published “Your Credit Matters,” an online guide with detailed advice on how to order a free credit report, review it for accuracy, and correct mistakes if you find them. The guide is available at: http://www.consumersunion.org/issues/creditmatters.html.

The new law enables consumers to request their free credit reports through a central web site, toll-free telephone line, or by mail and gives them the option of making a single request to get copies of their report from all three major credit bureaus. Consumers can order their credit reports by clicking on www.annualcreditreport.com, calling 877-322-8228, or filling out the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mailing it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

The centralized channels for ordering free credit reports are prohibited from advertising to consumers in any way that interferes with or undermines their ability to get reports for free. Since the new law went into effect in other parts of the country, some private web sites have sprung up that offer free credit reports but direct consumers into signing up for services offered by some of the credit bureaus for a fee.

“There’s only one official web site for ordering free credit reports,” said Garcia. “Consumers should be sure to order their free credit reports through the centralized channels created by the new law or they may end up getting duped into paying for extra services.”

In “Your Credit Matters,” Consumers Union offers tips to consumers on how to review their credit reports since they often contain inaccuracies. For example, consumers should look to make sure that their name, address, Social Security number and all other personal information is correct. They should make sure that there are no accounts, debts, bankruptcies or court judgments on their report that don’t belong to them. And they should make sure that payment histories and balances are correct and that any errors they have reported have been fixed.

In addition to highlighting other credit report information to review, the guide offers helpful tips and information about correcting errors, including new rights available to consumers who find mistakes and contact information for each credit bureau to report disputes. The guide also offers advice about what consumers should do if they discover they’ve become a victim of identity theft. And it provides useful information on obtaining and understanding credit scores, and how consumers can monitor their own credit.
A Spanish language edition of “Your Credit Matters” is available at: http://www.consumersunion.org/issues/credit-espanol.html

Norma Garcia: 415-431-6747