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Prior to 2003, consumers who were interested in reviewing their credit file disclosure (commonly called a credit report) either had to pay a fee, live in one of the states with state-mandated free reports, or have been denied credit. However, at the end of 2003, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act, which amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), was signed into law. This act gives every American consumer the right to a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. To facilitate the credit report request process, the three credit reporting agencies collaboratively developed a Web site, AnnualCreditReport.com, where consumers can request a copy of their credit report from each of the credit bureaus (alternatively, you can call 877.322.8228). You can order all three credit reports at the same time, or choose to order one at a time throughout the year.

Beware the ubiquitous “free credit report” Internet ads and emails–AnnualCreditReport.com is the only official Web site where you can order your free annual credit reports. These other Web sites often require you to subscribe to credit monitoring services that you most likely don’t need. Make sure you type the address correctly, as impostor Web sites also exist.

While the FACT Act gives you free access to only one report annually per credit bureau, you are still able to obtain a free credit report if you are denied credit, employment, or anything else as a result of your credit report. When you are denied a loan or revolving credit, the company that denied your credit application is required to tell you which credit bureau supplied the information used to base their decision. Submit your credit denial letter along with a request for your credit file to the credit bureau. In addition, residents of Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont have free access to their credit reports under state law. These can be ordered in addition to your free FACT Act annual credit reports.

Free credit reports ordered through AnnualCreditReport.com do not include your credit score. Credit scores can be ordered at the same time as your free reports for a nominal fee. While some organizations offer score monitoring services, and scores do frequently fluctuate, most consumers only need to review their score and their credit reports once per year and before making a major purchase. Victims of identity theft will want to monitor their reports more regularly.