Being turned down for a loan or some other form of credit is an ignominious experience. In today's society, creditworthiness is a fundamental part of one's identity, and being told that it doesn't measure up is like being accused of some basic personal inadequacy.

Worse yet, suppose you are turned down because some horrible error has crept into some distant computerized dossier that makes you look like a deadbeat when, in fact, you've never missed a payment.

Now comes a company that promises to spare you that pain and suffering. TRW Inc., which operates one of the nation's largest credit reporting bureaus, is inviting consumers to sign up for a service that will enable them -- for $35 a year -- to view their credit histories whenever they want.

TRW Credentials Service, which became available in this area this month, will ease the tension that would-be borrowers feel when they go to a lender, company officials say, and make it easier for them to check their files for accuracy.

Subscribers get unlimited copies of TRW's reports on them, and are notified whenever a "credit grantor" inquires about them. In addition, they get a credit card registration service, which notifies credit card issuers if the subscriber's cards are lost or stolen, and a "Consumer Financial Profile" -- constructed by TRW from information supplied by the subscriber -- that the subscriber can submit to lenders or other credit grantors when applying for credit.

The service makes a lot of sense -- from TRW's point of view. The company has a large, computerized data base, which can crank out a copy of your file at very little cost. The more money TRW can generate from the data base, the better.

But do you need Credentials? Maybe, but be sure you know all your rights and privileges under the law before you fork over your $35. Also, if you're applying for credit or a loan, stop and ask yourself some questions.

In addition to your credit history -- the likelihood that you will pay -- lenders are also interested in whether you can pay. In other words, is your income high enough to cover your other obligations and make the payments on the new loan? If it's a secured loan like a mortgage, is the collateral sufficient to protect the lender in the event of a default?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, then your credit history is academic. So before you apply, check with the lender about its income and collateral standards and take a hard-nosed look at your situation -- you may be able to save yourself a lot of emotional wear and tear.

Now for your rights under the law. They are more extensive than you may realize. In fact, according to Elgie Holstein of Bankcard Holders of America, a consumer group based here, "One reason {Credentials} appears to be catching on is because people fail to understand the extent of their rights under state and federal credit laws."

These laws require credit bureaus to provide you with most of the information that Credentials is offering.

Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the bureaus must give you access to your file for a reasonable charge, usually about $10. And if you have recently been refused credit on the basis of a credit bureau report, the bureau must provide you that report free if you ask for it within 30 days of being turned down.

Bureaus must also tell you if anyone made an inquiry about you. But you have to ask. The bureaus don't have to volunteer the information. TRW says it keeps inquiries as part of your file for 12 months and then drops them.

"Consumers need to examine their personal credit reports more often than they do," said Holstein. "Most people never do."

TRW's data seems to bear that out. The company says it has some 138 million records in its data base, but less than 1 percent of these consumers ask for copies of their files each year.

Holstein said that this may be because consumers erroneously assume that credit bureaus have a legal obligation to make sure files are accurate and up to date. "There is a trade-off in the law. Credit bureaus are not liable for misinformation... . That is balanced against your right to examine your file. If you fail to do that, you have only yourself to blame" for any mischief that results from incorrect information, he said.

If you do find something wrong, the law gives you the right to challenge it. You write the bureau, tell it what you believe is wrong and ask it to recheck. Under the law, it must reinvestigate and inform you of its findings in a reasonable time. If the information does prove to be incorrect, it must be removed from your file. And, if you so request, the bureau must notify anyone who has seen the incorrect file within the past six months.

If, after the rechecking, you still think the file is wrong, you have the right to have a brief statement giving your side of the issue placed in the file.

If the information is correct, you can't force the bureau to remove it. However, the law requires that derogatory information be deleted after seven years -- 10 years in the case of a bankruptcy.

Since most people manage to get through life without major difficulties with credit bureaus, and need to review their files only occasionally, Credentials may be a solution for a problem they do not have.

TRW concedes this. Delia Fernandez, director of public affairs for TRW Information Services, said, "If that's all a consumer wants {to check his or her file}, then we'd say Credentials is not for them."

But she argued that "Credentials is more than a simple exercise of rights." For "credit active" people, "its attractions are convenience and control" over their credit histories. The financial profile simplifies credit applications, she said; the Credentials client can submit the profile itself with an application or use it as a reference in filling out the lender's forms.

In fact, she said, TRW is looking forward to the day when its service can be used by consumers to file loan applications electronically.

In the meantime, consumers who would simply like to know more about their rights can send for a pamphlet titled "Putting Your Credit Credentials in Order" from Bankcard Holders of America at 333 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. There is a $1 charge for postage and handling.