Let me see if I've got this right.
We can fly people into outer space. We can examine DNA and determine someone's parentage. We can take pictures without film. The whole country can vote for a president and we can get the results the same night (well, unless you live in Florida).
Yet the Federal Trade Commission couldn't figure out how to roll out a system that would give everyone a free credit report at the same time.
They have got to be kidding us.
Last year, Congress passed a law requiring the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to provide consumers, upon request, a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months.
But the implementation of this law has me miffed. Some folks in some parts of the country won't be able to get their free credit report until September 2005. Others will be able to get theirs starting this December, which in my opinion is too late a start date.
Here's how the rollout will go down:
* If you live in Western states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming -- you can request your free report beginning Dec. 1.
* If you live in Midwestern states -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin -- the request date begins March 1.
* Consumers in the Southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas -- have to wait until June 1.
* If you live in these Eastern states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia -- and the District, you'll have to wait until Sept. 1, 2005. The case is the same for Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories.
Fortunately, if you live in a state that currently has a law that requires the credit bureaus to provide you with a free credit report -- Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont -- you can still request it under the state statute.
However, once you are eligible under federal law, you can't double dip. The law mandates only one free report a year, said Jen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for the FTC.
Under the federal rule, the credit bureaus must establish a "centralized source" for accepting consumer requests for free reports. This centralized source must include a dedicated Web site, a toll-free telephone number and a postal address.
The FTC is planning a public education campaign to remind consumers when they will become eligible and how to request a free report.
Boy, will that be confusing. Listen, I hate to harp on this rollout plan . . . but really.
I usually don't have a need to criticize the FTC. The agency does a good job of providing people with very useful consumer information. But on this issue, the commission failed to put the interest of consumers above that of private industry.
With the ability to get their credit reports for free, more consumers will probably check what's in their files on a yearly basis. This could help curb the explosive growth of identify theft, a crime in which a thief uses your personal information to commit fraud or theft. Usually, the scoundrel opens a credit card account in your name.
This year, for the fourth year in a row, identity theft topped the FTC's list of consumer complaints.
In fact, the FTC released a survey last year showing that 27.3 million people have been victims of identity theft in the past five years, including 9.9 million in 2003. Consumer victims reported $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.
Almost 10,000 identity theft victims had home loans -- totaling about $300 million -- taken out in their names in 2002, according to TowerGroup, a financial research and consulting firm.
With all this evidence of a mounting problem, I thought the FTC would issue a rule calling for the immediate release of the free reports.
So why a gradual rollout?
"There was a lot of concern that once people found out that they were eligible for a free credit report, there would be a great deal of excitement and demand for the service, so much that it may overwhelm the credit-reporting agencies in the early going," Schwartzman said in response to my question.
It may overwhelm the credit bureaus.
Yes, I get it.
Why should the FTC -- the nation's consumer protection agency -- inconvenience the credit bureaus?
Let's just give identity thieves more time to wreak havoc on people's credit lives.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.