Free Credit Report. In 2003 congress passed an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requiring each of the consumer reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to provide you with a free copy of your credit report at your request every 12 months. You can request this report by phone, by mail or on the web at AnnualCreditReport.com. The Federal Trade Commission has created a website to inform consumers of their options, as well as to warn consumers about impostor websites and services.
At AnnualCreditReport.com you have to fill in a form, provide them with your social security number, and answer some questions to prove your identity. After that they walk you through obtaining one credit report at a time from each of the three agencies. Each time you switch to a new agency you have to prove your identity again by answering questions based on information they have on file. Once you have completed the process you will have a report from each agency that shows your credit accounts and several years worth of payment history. What they don't provide you with is your actual credit score number. You have to pay if you want to see that. [Edit from Tom: See note at bottom on how to get Experian credit score for free as well.]
After looking through the data, it is possible that you will find an inaccuracy in your report. You will want to check all three reports because they will all be different. If you do find a mistake, don't fall for advertisements from companies that claim they can help you clean up your credit, quickly improve your credit score, or remove negative information such as late payments or bankruptcies from your credit record. Companies that advertise these services are usually fraudulent or are charging you fees (sometimes very expensive fees) for something that you can easily do yourself for free.
Disputing a claim. The websites for each of the consumer credit companies offer instructions for disputing a claim. They can be found at:
If you dispute an item on your credit report the credit agencies are required to contact the lender and verify the disputed information. They are then required to let you know whether they were able to verify the information and who they talked with at the lending institution. If they cannot verify the information they are required to remove it from the report. My advice is to actively dispute any items that you know are incorrect. However, if you have legitimate negative information on there then don't bother to dispute it. The credit agencies do make mistakes, but they are also pretty good at verifying the original information, so if the negative information is correct than just work on improving for the future. As the negative information gets older your credit score will improve.
Identity theft. If in this process you discover you have been the victim of identity theft you can find information on recovering from identity theft at the Federal Trade Commission's website.
Free credit check from Prosper. Okay, so now you have your free credit reports and it will be a year before you can pull another official free credit report. What can you do in the meantime to keep an eye on your credit? Well, you can continue to get monthly reports at a cost of $9.95 per report or sign up with third party monitoring services for a similar fee. But, what if you want to do it for free? One lender on Prosper hopes to do just that. His plan is to routinely go part way through the process of creating a listing on Prosper as a borrower, until he gets to the point where it shows his Experian credit grade, and then cancel the loan process. This only works with Experian, but he hopes that by doing a similar process at other peer to peer lending sites he can check with other agencies. He figures that "it is a free and easy way to make sure my identity hasn't been stolen (at least by someone who applied for an account that checked Experian). I will probably sign up at Lending Club as well to monitor my Transunion report. If Zopa ever launches and uses Equifax I will be all set." This may work to some extent but it will not actually provide you your credit score (just Prosper's credit grade) or the detailed information that comes with a normal credit report.
Cost of poor credit. So, why all of the worry about checking and monitoring your credit? If you have got this far in the article, you probably understand the importance of having good credit. Having poor credit increases the amount that you have to pay for home and car loans. But what makes it even worse is that it can ruin marriages, contribute to poor health, and can even affect what job opportunities are available to you. One analyst at TheStreet.com suggested that having a poor credit score could cost you over $1 million dollars.
If you do monitor your credit, you should be aware that you may experience a significant change in your score this fall. Don't panic right away, it could just be due to FICOs change in their scoring algorithm. FICO is adding two additional categories on the low end of the scale, and eliminating the benefits of being an authorized user on a credit card with someone that has good credit. This has the potential to negatively affect tens of millions of scores, so be on the lookout for that change.
Update from Tom: Experian runs freecreditreport.com which provides users with a free credit report and credit score. This is seperate from AnnualCreditReport.com which provides you with one free credit report per year (without score). To get your free detailed credit report on Experian's freecreditreport.com you actually sign up for the Triple Advantage Credit Monitoring program which costs $12.95/month but if you cancel within the first 30 days it is free.