American consumers who visit the website www.annualcreditreport.com will see the following message: “This central site allows you to request a free credit file disclosure, commonly called a credit report, once every twelve months, from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.” This free service is offered by these “Big Three” credit reporting institutions in accordance with the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act)- a law intended to give Americans the ability to discover their own credit status.
Consumers should be aware that this website is their one and only free access point to their own credit profiles. Since there are three companies participating in this program, consumers can actually space the free reports out over the course of the year (one report annually from each of the three credit rating companies) in order to get a free check of their credit every four months!
Www.freecreditreport.com, which is heavily advertised on television, is oddly enough, NOT free. Consumers who attempt to use that site will discover that they have to undertake an expensive subscription to get the service, and will then be forced to go back into the site within nine days to drop the service in order to avoid paying for it.
In terms of public policy, it is somewhat objectionable that low income Americans are encouraged to get the mistaken idea that they should use a subscription website instead of a free one. But it is in the nature of capitalism for advertisers to tell less than the whole truth about their products. The best solution is to use annualcreditreport.com, which is not advertised, and ignore freecreditreport.com, which is advertised.
Visitors to the annualcreditreport.com will be required to identify themselves thoroughly by answering questions from the website. It is necessary to share one’s social security number and answer a question regarding personal past use of credit (a wise security feature, since it is common for social security numbers to be stolen). This prevents unscrupulous persons from obtaining confidential credit information about others.
Once a consumer completes all this information and has his or her identity accepted by the site, it will be possible to get the credit report on the screen. That report can in some cases be a lengthy document! The consumer then has a choice of reading it all on the screen, or printing it for future reference. Printing it could be a good idea if one has been having credit problems, since there are only three free reports per year.
Pay close attention to what the website asks you to do- as you will probably be asked if you wish to purchase a subscription to a credit service. But unlike other websites dealing with credit history, it is possible and relatively easy here to take the credit report and refuse other services.
The federal government has performed an important service by giving Americans access to periodic snapshots of their credit status through annualcreditreport.com. It is unfortunate that some are unaware of this service, and it is to be hoped that more will become aware of it and will learn to use it effectively.