A fairly new federal law that's designed to give Americans easier access to their credit reports is creating confusion among some readers.
Cindy Thoburn of West Hills, Calif., wrote: "Can you tell me where I go to order my free credit reports from the three main agencies? Or do you have to order them individually?"
And Ken Paynton from Stanton, Mo., e-mailed me out of frustration: "The three credit report bureaus are trying to scam the public. Whenever I try to check mine they want to charge me from $5 to $9.95 for my credit score. This is not free like the law said it should be. It is a bunch of baloney."
Let me explain how the law works. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, also known as the FACT Act, was passed to help fight identity theft by giving you and me a free copy of the files compiled on us by the three major credit bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Under the law, once every 12 months you can obtain a free copy of your credit report upon request (I stress that last part because the companies are not going to search you out and provide the information on their own).
I wrote about how FACT Act works twice in 2003: "Somewhat More Fair and Increasingly Accurate" (Dec. 11) and "Finally New Ways to Fight ID Thieves" (Dec. 4). I also addressed the free credit reports in this e-letter last fall -- see second item at this link.
There are several ways you can access your credit reports:
* Go to www.annualcreditreport.com and follow the instructions.
* Call 1-877-322-8228. You will be prompted to enter in your information, and the reports will be mailed to you.
* Fill out a request form (which you can find online here) and mail it to this address: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281 Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281.
Perhaps most importantly, where you live in the United States determines when you can start making your annual request. Here's the schedule of when state residents are entitled to their free credit reports: