Since 2005, The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) granted consumers access to a free credit report once every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and Trans Union). This new access has increased consumer awareness of the parameters used for making credit decisions. Now, important information is available which is used by creditors, businesses, and employers to make application decisions that can directly affect your access to credit, housing and employment.
How Do You Gain Access to Your Free Report?
The only website that is run by the Government and offers a truly free report with no strings attached is found at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can also gain access to your free report over the phone at 1-877-322-8228. An online form can also be downloaded, giving you the option to mail in your request to: Annual Credit Report Request Service; PO Box 105281; Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
You may receive all three of your reports at one time or spread them out over the course of the year. If you get an Equifax report on January 1st you will not have access to another free report from Equifax until January 2nd, the following year. For this reason, many choose to spread the reports out and get one every 4 months. If you tend to forget, you can get them all at once.
Note: A free credit score is not included with the report. The agencies will be happy to sell you a credit score; however, many credit card companies now offer free credit scores as an account benefit.
Other Offers for Free Credit Reports
Many companies advertise a free credit report. Most of these companies are credit monitoring services that give you unlimited access to your credit report and send you alerts when an application or any changes occur on your credit file. The free credit report is a carrot to get you to sign up for their services which are generally charged monthly. The federal website does not offer credit monitoring services.
Fraudulent sites are also widespread and seek to gather your personal information to steel your identity. Misspellings or sites with similar names are common and could take you to the wrong site. Pop-up ads, emails or calls claiming to be from Annualcreditreport.com are red flags.
What Information Do I Need to Get My Free Report?
At first glance this is very straightforward. You fill out a short form with your name; address; (previous address if you have moved within two years); social security number; and birth date.
Then you must also answer security questions, which in theory only you will know. The reality is that many consumers do not know the answers to the security questions. The questions may ask mortgage payment information, pervious street addresses from 20 plus years ago, and even other members of your household or close relatives.
The challenge is that the questions reflect information found on the report, which you have not seen yet. If you have fraud on your account, there may be information on the report that you won’t know. Addresses you never lived at and accounts you never opened. Another common occurrence is if you have a first and second mortgage with the same company, you have no way of identifying which account they are referring to. Yet another area that trips up consumers is if you have an account that has been sold or gone into collection. Old accounts that have been paid off or written off could be sold to a new company that you have never heard of. The new name will appear as the correct answer to the security question rather than the one you remember.
If you fail to answer the questions correctly, know that this occurs frequently. It simply means you must now mail in a form with verification of who you are. They will give you a list of options which include things like a copy of your driver’s license and social security card. You will then receive a physical copy of your report in about 15 days, instead of instantly, online.
Once You Have Access
If you request the report either on the phone or through the mail you will have a printed copy of the report that you can keep for your records. It is good to have a copy on file even if it has information you would rather forget is there.
Online reports will grant you immediate access. At this point you can download it and save it in a PDF or you can create a user name and password and have access to the report for 30 days without any additional cost.
What to Do with the Report
Your credit file is the story of your credit history. While negative information has a limited life accounts that are decades old can be found on your report. Here are a few key pieces on information you want to review:
1) Personal information. This includes name (including maiden names or previous married names), addresses you have lived at, jobs you have held. While this information is not calculated into your score, companies are using this data to verify your identity as more companies move online. This makes correctly this information an important step. If addresses or employment that are unfamiliar to you are found on your report, this could be an indication of fraud or identity theft.
2) Accounts (both open and closed). Review this information carefully for accuracy as this information is used for scoring. In addition to whether an account is open or closed it will also show a 7-year payment history, credit limits and balances,
3) Legal action against you which include bankruptcy, lawsuits, judgments, and foreclosures are available from public records and are reported on your credit file. All but bankruptcies are listed for 7 years from the default date and a bankruptcy will remain for 10 years.
4) Inquiries are separated from hard and soft hits. Hard hits are companies that accessed your credit when you applied for a loan or filled out an application that required credit as part of the evaluation. In many cases you will have signed an authorization giving the company approval to pull your credit file.
Soft hits are from companies that want to consider you for a credit offer. These may be companies you have never heard from or companies that have sent you junk mail soliciting their products and services.
If you find inaccurate information on the report, you can dispute it online or through the mail. This process takes around 30 days for the credit bureau to investigate the account. You will receive notification in the mail on the results of the investigation along with an updated report.
The importance of reviewing you credit file at least annually will help you keep track of your accounts and is a great way to identify fraud or identity theft and make corrections. Loan applications often go much smoother if discrepancies are addressed before an application is submitted.