Free Credit Reports

Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005 11:00 AM

East Coast residents are finally set to join with the rest of the country and receive free copies of their credit reports annually from each of the three national credit bureaus.

But since the program's West Coast launch last year, complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and consumer advocacy groups indicate that many consumers have had problems getting their reports, especially with the Web site set up for them -- and with imposter sites that lure consumers into giving up their personal information to identity thieves.

Washington Post staff writer Caroline E. Mayer was online Thursday, Sept. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the reports and potential difficulties for consumers. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Read her article about the reports here .


Caroline E. Mayer: Hello everyone. I know that free credit reports certainly isn't the hot topic of today, and that's understandable as we see more and more of Katrina's wrath.

Even so, I do hope that you all take this opportunity to at least think about ordering a report, if not now sometime in the near future. Now that you can order one for free once a yearfrom each of the three credit bureaus, it's really important to do so--to make sure no one else has taken out accounts in your name as well as make sure your creditors are posting correct info to your accounts. And it's even more important if you're planning to apply for credit in the near future.

As you apply for your reports, I'd love to hear how the process goes--if it's easy, complicated and also how accurate your reports are once you get them. Feel free to write me at mayerc@washpost.com


Alexandria, VA: I just used the link to the credit report website from washingtonpost.com and printed out my 3 credit reports with no problem! It was quick and easy.

Caroline E. Mayer: That's great news--and a good way to start this chat. I hpoe all of you find it so easy...What do your reports look like? Any errors or also good news on that front? Check them carefully.


Gaithersburg, MD: Although it is great to receive a copy of your credit report, the fact that it does not contain your score significantly reduces the value. Are there any plans to allow inviduals to recieve their scores for free too?

Caroline E. Mayer: Right now, there are no plans for free credit scores and I wouldn't count on that. The main purpose of the free credit reports to to make sure there are no errors--and although errors could affect a score, scores are a completely separate issue.


Washington DC: Is a credit report usually the first symptom of identity theft? And in the event of identity theft, would the free report provide enough information to take any action?

Caroline E. Mayer: Sometimes a credit report is the first --and only--indication of identity theft. But sometimes you find out the hard way--when credit is denied (and you haven't checked your report)or when you receive calls from debt collectors for debt you never owed. Better to discover the errors in a credit report first.

Unfortunately, if there are errors, that's just the first step. Then you need to alert both the credit bureau AND creditor (make sure you do both) about the error; you may need to file a police report as well. It's a time-consuming process but there are lots of good organizations that can help guide you on what to do if that occurs. One is Privacy Rights Clearinghouse which you can find on the web.


Annandale, Va.: I was able to receive both me and my wife's credit reports beginning at 8:01 am EST this morning without any problems (paid $4.95/ea for our scores). However, I decided to get our reports from only one of the three agencies. In four months, I will order from another agency; in another four months I will order from the last agency. This way I will be able to monitor my credit throughout the year for "free" (minus what I pay for my score). Would you say this is good advice?

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see my score was almost as high as it can go. Then I see that Trans Union uses a scale, which goes up to 950 instead of 850. Is the score I paid for this morning the one that lenders will look at? Seems like I received just the Trans Union Score which is one part of the FICO score calculation. Does this sound about right?

Caroline E. Mayer: Great to hear it was so easy for you. There are lots of people--2,076 to be specific--who have filed complaints with the FTC because it wasn't so simple.

Your strategy--of getting one report from a different credit bureau every three months--is a sound one, recommended by many consumer advocates. It's a way to stay on top of your records and not have to pay for monthly monitoring services.

As for the credit score, this will probably be pretty confusing to people, but it's important nonetheless. There is only one credit bureau--Equifax--which is using the FICO score--that's the one that most lenders use to determine to grant credit. Experian and TransUnion have their own formulas (which explains why TransUnion goes above 850). Experian and TransUnion say their scores help educate consumers about their financial health and can lead them to take corrective steps if needed. But consumer groups question how helpful these scores really are Their advice: buy only one credit score, the one used by lenders, which means Equifax.


Washington, DC: I went online today to order my reports from the three agencies through annualcreditreport.com. I got them from equifax and experian without a problem. However, I was unable to answer transunion's security questions. I know my current and former addresses, but they told me I was entering invalid information. And I only had access to two out of the three credit card numbers they were looking for. In the end, they shut me out of the online system and told me I had to order by mail or fax. It was rather frustrating.

Caroline E. Mayer: Unfortunately your complaint is not unusual--it sounds like many of the 1600 plus complaints the FTC got from consumers unable to get their reports. Many mentioned the exact same problems with TransUnion. Your next option is to get by mail--which will take two weeks. Go back to www.annualcreditreport.com and print out the form needed to make a mail request and send it on its way. Let me know if you don't get the report--that seems to be another problem from the complaints the FTC received. Good luck!


Burke, VA: After reading your article this morning, I ordered all three of my credit reports online. The process was simple and I have now printed them out. I noticed all three companies tried to sell me my credit/FICO score for $5.95 or $6.95. Since this score is used as a showstopper by credit merchants to determine whether you get a loan and its terms, why didn't the FTC order the companies to supply this score for free once yearly?

Caroline E. Mayer: It wasn't the FTC but Congress that mandated the free credit reports--and that was a challenging enough as it was. It's a great idea, but I don't see it happening anytime soon. Meanwhile, if you're not applying for credit anytime soon, you should consider whether you really need a credit score...And if so, remember there's only one credit bureau, Equifax, that is selling the real score used by most lenders. So while it's still an added cost, you could save money that way.


Washington DC: The process was fairly straightforward, although I'm still uncomfortable giving them much personal info (to verify my identity). Have there been reports of inappropriate access to the free credit reports? It was a little surprizing to see data going back 7 years, and that data would surely be valuable to thieves.

Caroline E. Mayer: Good question; so far, I haven't heard of any such stories--at least if you've reached the correct website. There are some imposter sites that have taken advantage of misspellings (such as annualceditreport.com or wwwannualcreditreport.com--the first is missing the r in credit, the second, the period after www)that are phishing for information. That's why everyone needs to be careful about that they reach the right site.

Assuming that, it should be secure.


Wash DC: I think FTC should keep stressing the importance of getting the reports directly from the official website, the www.annualcreditreport.com, and not accepting email offers. The spoofers, who prepare the "fake" website that look like the real thing and get your vital info, are getting very good- I just received an email from a fake Amazon site that look scarily real and had the fake links disgused very well. If it wasn't for my paranoia and my email settings that display full headers, they would get their grubby hands on my address, credit card info and who knows what else...

Caroline E. Mayer: You are right to be very careful. The FTC and credit bureaus have repeatedly warned consumers--and I'll warn everyone here again: never ever try to get these reports through an email that's sent to you!!!!!! The only way you can obtain the legitimate reports is to do it yourself, either by going through the link at www.FTC.gov or the correct site www.annualcreditreport.com. If you get an email suggesting it's quicker to respond that it, DON'T! It's a scam, scam, scam!!!!


Washington, D.C.: The 3 reports don't seem to have significantly different data. Wouldn't it be enough to watch a single credit report?

Caroline E. Mayer: Many consumer advocates suggest you watch one report at a time--order one, wait four months, order the next and then again four months later--So you watch each bureau once a year.


Washington, D.C.: Went online 20 minutes ago. Had no problem getting all 3. System seemed to work very well if you are prepared to use it. That is have the information about your bills in front of you. Also very pleased to see that there were no errors in any of the reports, although some credit limits were missing from some lenders.

Caroline E. Mayer: Great going!!! All you need to do now is contact those lenders to make sure they include your credit limits. That's important if you're trying to get credit in the near future--and you are no where near your credit limit--because it reflects good credit.


Laurel, MD: When we request free credit reports online how can we make sure that we're not submitting our personal information to an imposter website (apart from clicking the link on Washington Post)?

Caroline E. Mayer: One way is to get the link thru the FTC website--www.FTC.gov--fewer letters to mistype, so less chance of errors.


Clinton, MD: Good Morning Caroline,

I was able to get my free credit report(s) with no problem except fron TranUnion like the previous poster. I have a quick question. My score is rated fair and I want to know how I can raise my score besides paying my bills on time which I have done for the last year or two. Is there anything else I can do to raise it? How often does it take for your credit score to rise based on paying bills on time?

Caroline E. Mayer: Not sure I can answer since I don't know all your details--but here are a couple of questions to think about. Are you paying on time but only the minimum payment--if so, pay more. If not--i.e. you are paying everything off completely, then maybe it's because you have too much credit outstanding and need to pay some of it down. Those are just two quick thoughts.


Washington, D.C.: I have a copy of my credit report from a recent loan financing, and it includes listings for my student loans (which were paid off 2 years ago) and old credit cards that were cancelled years ago. Is there any way to get these items off of the reports? The reporting companies seem to consider these to be "too much revolving debt" even though they are not active accounts, and it counts against my credit scores. Thanks.

Caroline E. Mayer: You need to contact the credit card firms as well as the student loan firm and get them to send correct information to the credit bureaus!


Annandale, VA: The credit reports you can now order are much better than the old reports. They are easy to read and understand; updating and disputing online is very easy-- there is a button next to each account listed to use if you need to dispute information. Then they give you a bulleted list of common disputes so you don't have to type everything out. Plus they will provide you with an updated credit report which you can view online for 30 days. I did mine this morning and it was very easy.

Caroline E. Mayer: Good news! I haven't had time to order mine--too busy with this chat! But hope to soon. I hope I have a similar experience.


washingtonpost.com: Caroline's article, which includes information on obtaining free credit reports, is online here .


Washington, DC: Some of these credit report services are scams. I ordered three credit reports from "Free Credit Report.com" a year ago. They cost me $29.50, a charge I was well aware of. However, they included what they said was a free weekly credit alert for one year. It wasn't free. I called the company and cancelled service, received a cancellation number. However, Free Credit Report continued the weekly alert and charged to my credit card $29.50 monthly. Firm would not stop monthly credit card charges, so I cancelled my credit card. My MasterCard disalloed the charges, eventually, but told me the company was a scam, and had many complaints against it; however, Mastercard, said there was no way for them to stop billing me if the company claimed a charge. I understand from friend that FreeCreditReport (which advertises on radio and TV) continues with its scam operations. Are you aware of this scam operation?

Caroline E. Mayer: There are several different websites that have been reported to have similar practices, unfortunately. I'm not sure if the one you're talking about is the same as freecreditreport.com (this site doesn't have a space between the words) and is owned by Experian, which just got zapped by the FTC last month for deceptively marketing free credit reports and not adequately disclosing there's a fee. Keep fighting the charges--and complain to FTC and others if need be. Good luck


Ashburn, VA: Caroline, count me in as one who couldn't get any of my reports from the big 3. As I type, another browser is open at TransUnion, where it says my info is loading. It's been that way for 20 minutes. Equifax required me to login to see my report, and then I couldn't find a way to get an ID to login. Now, it says I have already viewed my report there. So what can I do now? Some free service.

Caroline E. Mayer: Wow. Sorry to hear that. Your complaint is similar to many already made to the FTC. But I'd make another one to the agency--and also try to get the reports by mail.


Bethesda, MD: If I have already requested my free report earlier this year (entitled to in Maryland) can I again receive a free report under this program?


Caroline E. Mayer: You raise a very good point for Maryland residents. Thanks for asking the question. Maryland laws have long permitted its residents to get a free credit report. And as I understand the system now--Maryland residents can now get TWO free annual reports from each agency. There is a catch--you have to go through different addresses. For the federal system, use www.annualcreditreport.com. There's another address (mailing I believe) to get the reports under the Maryland law. I don't have it at my fingertips. Sorry.


Washington, D.C.: If the credit reports do not contain my credit score, is there a way where I can obtain that information for free?

Caroline E. Mayer: Not that I know of. Sorry


Alexandria, VA: I went online this morning and got my three credit reports with no difficulty. All the information on them looked accurate and current, or at least accurate and slightly out of date.

Well, all except my birthdate on Equifax. It says I was born on a different day in a different month in the 1920s. The birthdate on the other two reports was correct. Is that normal?

Caroline E. Mayer: Surprised you were able to get the Equifax material with that error--they didn't ask you your birth date to get the info? Is there a way to correct that online? There should be and you should definitely try to get that done.


Bel Air, Md: What is the web address for getting our free credit reports? Once we go there, will we see our report instantly, is it mailed to us, or is there some other kind of watiting?


washingtonpost.com: Here's that Web site: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/

Caroline E. Mayer: Once again, webaddress is www.annualcreditreport.com. I have yet to go online to do this--I'm to busy doing this chat, but as I understand it, once there, you will be asked some key information and then asked which credit report you want to see--Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. You can do all or just one. At each site, you will be asked further details, such as credit-account number, name of mortgage lender or amount of mortgage payment. If you answer correct, you will get your report instantly. If you don't have the right information (or the credit bureau has wrong data) your request will be rejected and you will be directed to request your report by phone or mail.

So good luck!


Caroline E. Mayer: So many questions folks, but unfortunately time has run out...Sorry I couldn't get to you all. Good luck to all. Let me know about your experiences, good or bad. Email me at mayerc@washpost.com


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