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Consumer Alert

Free or not free? Understanding credit reports and your rights

A few recent letters asking about credit reports make it clear that a lot of consumers don’t completely understand what they can get free and when they have to pay to receive the same information that lenders — and others — use to judge them.

First, let’s be clear about this: The one official site where consumers can request their once a year free credit reports from each of the three largest credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) is AnnualCreditReport.com. Other sites with similar addresses are not the real deal. Most pretenders try to get you to sign up for credit monitoring with the promise of a “free” credit report — which often is the one you could get free on your own anyhow.

Continue reading below

As for the official site, you should note that there will be attempts to sell you your credit score or other services. You needn’t sign up for those.

Your credit report, also known as your credit history, shows lines of credit (from credit cards to car loans to mortgages) both open and closed, and your payment history. It will also show the size of the lines of credit along with outstanding balances. Consumers also are entitled to request reports at no cost for several reasons including an adverse credit action — a denial or interest rate increase — as well as if they believe they are victims of fraud.

Looking at those reports is vital to correcting ­errors that could affect your ability to borrow as well as to detect if someone has stolen your identity. Your credit score is calculated from your credit history. That score, ranging from 300 to 850, gives a potential lender a quick look at your creditworthiness.

Several sites offer free simulated credit scores to give you an idea of what the official score might show. The main cost for signing up for those services is getting on targeted marketing lists.

Many credit specialists recommend getting a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every four months so you can quickly spot an error or detect fraud. But whether you get three once a year or one every four months, don’t pay for what you don’t have to and don’t leave on the table what is free.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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