When the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act or FACTA) was passed in December 2003, all consumers were entitled to receive a free copy of their annual credit reports. In 2004, the three major nationwide credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, worked together to create a central online portal where you can receive your credit report: AnnualCreditReport.Com. However, the new provisions of the FACT Act meant booming business for online companies offering credit-monitoring services–as well as identity thieves. "Free Credit Report" imposter sites sprang up practically overnight. Here's how you can determine if a credit report site is the real deal.
Free Credit Report Site Safety Basics
Strictly avoid "free credit report" site links that you receive by email, warns the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Credit bureaus will never contact you by email or phone to invite you to receive your credit reports, nor do they use pop-up ads to entice you to visit such a credit report site. These sites could be maintained by identity thieves "phishing" for your personal information. If you receive a "free credit report" email, forward this to the FTC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don't visit sites with "free credit report" in the URL, advises the FTC. Although these may be legitimately run operations, the goal of imposter sites is to get you to sign up for a trial service, such as one for credit monitoring. According to a March 2009 MSNBC news report, you may get your credit reports for free, but if you forget to cancel your trial period, it will cost you. Many such sites charge consumers a monthly fee to see their credit reports in return for credit-monitoring services.
Assume that AnnualCreditReport.Com is the safest site from which to access your credit reports–and the only site in which you can see them totally free of chage. The World Privacy Forum advises to play it even safer: go to the site using your home computer or one that's on a secure network–avoid computers at the library or local coffee shop. If you really want to play it safe, call for your credit reports rather than ordering them online. You can contact Annual Credit Report at 1 (877) 322-8228. You will not speak to a live person; rather, you will either enter your information on a push-tone key pad or speak it into the phone directly. To expedite your request, call from your home phone number, as the automated phone line relies on this information to identify you.
Finally, steer clear of "free credit score" sites, warns "MSN Money." These sites also charge you monthly fees for credit-monitoring services. If you want to purchase your credit scores (which are not included with your free credit reports), you can do so when you order them through the government-mandated website (see Resources), or by contacting each of the three consumer reporting agencies individually:
1 (800) 685-1111
1 (866) 200-6020
1 (800) 888-4213
In January 2010, the fee for a credit score for all three credit bureaus was less than $10.00.