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News

Prevent Identity Theft by Checking Your Credit Report

Author: Steven Presar

You may not know it but you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from Equifax, Experian and Trans Union!

These three major credit reporting companies, maintain a profile of how you pay your bills, what type of mortgage loan you qualify for and whether you've been sued or filed for bankruptcy.

However, this free credit reporting service is not available in all areas of the United States yet.

The service has been available in the twelve western United States since January 1, 2005. It is now available in Midwestern states since March 1, 2005.

On June 1, 2005 the service will be available to individuals in Southern United States and for those in the Eastern United States starting September 1, 2005.

This service is provided under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT). It is in response to the raising number of identity thief reported in the U.S.

The law lets you see what lenders, prospective employers or prospective landlords see.

An addition goal is to help you spot identity theft by letting you to see a list of all credit accounts open in your name. For you to view your report regularly may be the best ways you have to determine how your credit rating stands and if you have been a victim of identity theft.

You have the ability to request one credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies once a year.

The best way to make the most of this free credit report opportunity is by ordering a credit report from one of the three credit companies every three-four months. In that way you can monitor your credit regularly at no cost.

The official website that you can get your credit report information is -- www.annualcreditreport.com.

Once you are at the site, you will able to link to the three credit companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, special web pages to get your credit report.

However, be aware of the advertising on each agency's free credit report site that may lead you to believe that you must purchase one or more of there other services, like your personal credit score number, to get your free credit report.

The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act does not prevent these credit reporting companies from advertising their other services before you are able to get to your free credit report.

When you are at one of the credit reporting company's site pages it is not clear that you may get your free credit report without purchasing any of the company's other services.

As you visit the credit reporting company's site you may get the impression that you must pay to see your "credit score" (also called a FICO score) before you are able to see your free credit report.

This is not the case, your credit score is the number calculated on a scale between about 300 and 925. It is used when you're buying a new car, house or other major purchases. You'll still have to pay one of the credit companies a fee to see that number. This credit score number is different from the information within your free credit report.

The official site is separate from the credit reporting companies' regular sites, where you still must pay to get your credit information.

In addition, there are a few look-alike sites you may confuse with the official free credit report site. These other sites may have been setup for outright credit fraud. Be very careful that you are working with the official site setup and maintained by Central Source, a joint venture among the three credit companies to process these free credit reports -- www.annualcreditreport.com. If you receive an offer through the mail, via phone call or an email to provide your credit report for a fee, it is probably fraudulent.

Here's how to Request your free Credit Report

Online: www.annualcreditreport.com.

Or you can call toll-free: 877-322-8228

Or order by mail: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

If you request report by mail you must mail in a request form available on the site of the Federal Trade Commission:

http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/credit/docs/fact_act_request_form.pdf

The reports are sent to you within 15 days.

If you're ordering your report online, it's best to go to the www.annualcreditreport.com. site directly rather than to go through the one of the three credit reporting company's sites. You may get your free report at their sites but you first must go through their advertising for monthly credit-monitoring programs and other services they offer to get your free report.

If you do this inquiry online, be sure to do your inquiry from your home computer because you'll need to have certain financial information handy to answer security questions.

You'll be asked a series of personal questions to make sure you are the person that you say you are, including your birth date and Social Security number.

Central Source says its security protocols and measures protect personal information from unauthorized access or record alteration. In addition, your Social Security number is encrypted for your additional protection.

And you can request that just the last four digits of that number appear on your printed credit report.

As mentioned above, you may request one report from each credit company once a year. To get the best use of this free service, it's best to request your credit report from one credit company this month and request your credit report from another credit company about three-four months latter. Then request the third version of your report about three-four months after that.

After you request the credit company that you want to provide your credit report you'll be redirected to special site pages set up by each of the three credit companies. Each will ask you a series of personal questions to validate your identity; the name of your mortgage lender, the amount of your monthly payment, the amount of your auto loan, etc.

Each of the three has a different look and feel:

~ Experian has a handy summary report that shows the number of "potentially negative" items in your report and number of accounts in good standing.

~ Equifax shows an exhaustive list of accounts, what type they are, when they were opened, the balance and credit limit, last payment and account status.

~ TransUnion uses a color-coded series of boxes to show which accounts are current and which are overdue.

All three show who else has been looking at your credit report, credit card companies seeking to approve you for a credit card offer, mortgage brokers, lenders trying to determine the terms of a loan, or existing creditors reviewing your account.

You can choose to just look at the information online or print the complete report. Your credit report may be dozens of pages long to view or print.

All three offer links for disputing credit report information or reporting an error. You'll also get the address and sometimes the phone number for each individual creditor, handy if you need to follow up on an error.

You are also offered the option of submitting a "personal statement" where you can explain your credit report in your own words. The statement remains on file for two years.

Your basic credit report is free but as you go about getting to your credit information, you'll have to contend with multiple offers for fee-based products and services. You do not have to buy any of them to get your free credit report. The credit companies have loaded their pages with offers for monthly credit-report alerts, credit rankings, home valuators or credit score.

Summary: Getting Your Credit Report

Free credit reports can be obtained once a year by telephone, by mail or online from the official site operated by Central Source for Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

~ Online: www.annualcreditreport.com.

~ Toll-free number: 877.322.8228

~ Mailing address: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

It will take up to 15 days to process phone and mail requests.

You do not have to pay anything to get your free credit report.

However, if you want to get a credit score or other extras, you may be charged a fee.

Additional reports can be obtained anytime directly from the credit reporting companies at prices ranging from $9 for one report from one agency to $34.95 for a combined report from all three.

If you want to receive the reports by mail, you must mail in a request form available on the site of the Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/credit/docs/fact_act_request_form.pdf

For more information: Check out the FTC's site: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/freereports.htm

You can also make a complaint online at that site address.

Credit Report Tips

You don't have to order all three reports at once. Stagger your requests so you can view your credit over the year; i.e.: order one report now, the next report in three months and the third report in about six months. Then next year you would be eligible for another free report from the first credit company. This currently only applies to those in the Western and Midwestern U.S. The rest of the county will have to want until their regional roll-out.

If you are planning a major purchase, you may want to get all three reports at once to make sure there isn't any information that might affect your credit.

Read the report to make sure everything is accurate. Each agency has an address or number you can call to report errors. If you are disputing an item listed, the credit agency is required to investigate. Inaccurate, incomplete or unverifiable information must be removed or corrected, usually within 30 days. For more information on credit-report disputes, go online to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/credit.

If you have any technical problems, you get kicked off the site, you never get a report requested by phone or mail, or you only get one of the three reports you request -- write to the joint mailing address, Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281, and explain the problem.

If you have been the victim of identity theft, you are eligible to get a free credit report from all the agencies even if you've already received your free annual report under the program.

If you have complaints about the program, contact the FTC online at www.ftc.gov/credit. then click on "File a Complaint." or you can write to FTC Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Room 130, Washington, D.C. 20580. You can also send a written complaint to the official credit-report site at the Atlanta address listed above.

Copyright Steven Presar

About the author: Steven Presar is a recognized small business technology coach, Internet publisher, author, speaker, and trainer. He provides personal, home, and computer security solutions at www.ProtectionConnect.com. He provides business software reviews at www.OnlineSoftwareGuide.com. In addition, he publishes articles for starting and running a small business at www.Agora-Business-Center.com. Be sure to sign-up for the SOHO newsletter at this site.

See Also: Identity Theft, Financial Advice, Financial Software



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