WASHINGTON -- Americans who want to make sure their credit reports are accurate or check their financial histories can get the information for free under a program starting today.
The Federal Trade Commission is rolling out the service in phases. Residents in 13 Western states will get first crack at requesting a free credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus that maintain them.
Banks and other lenders use the data in the reports to evaluate loan applicants. Access to free reports was mandated in consumer privacy legislation President Bush signed into law last year.
"The program was designed to help consumers get a better understanding of their credit and to promote accuracy in terms of consumer information," FTC spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman said.
Before the new law, consumers had access to free credit reports only if they were denied credit, unemployed, on welfare or believed that they were victims of identity theft. A handful of states also allow residents access to free reports.
People in Midwestern states will become eligible for free reports on March 1, followed by Southern states on June 1 and Eastern states on Sept. 1.
The FTC is staggering the requesting period to help the nation's three major credit bureaus -- Equifax Inc., Experian Information Solutions and Trans Union -- deal with an expected crush of people asking for free credit histories.
To get a free credit report, consumers can log on to www.AnnualCreditReport.com, a new Web site created jointly by the credit reporting companies. They also can call (877) FTC-HELP or mail a standardized form to Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281. Consumers are allowed one free report per year from each of the agencies.
Some consumer advocates have criticized the FTC for allowing the credit bureaus to advertise numerous fee-based products and services on the Web site, such as credit-monitoring services.
"You shouldn't have to be bombarded by ads to take advantage of a right Congress gave you," said Ed Mierzwinski of the consumer advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Mierzwinski accused the companies of using the fear of identity theft to scare people into buying overpriced services they don't need. He said there is no reason to pay money for year-round credit monitoring because people already have the right to get free reports if they suspect they are victims of fraud.
David Rubinger, a spokesman for Equifax, said the fee-based services clearly are advertised as optional. Federal law prohibits advertising that interferes with a consumer's ability to get a free report.
"The bottom line is that consumers need to do more than simply get their credit report to assure themselves of their credit health," Rubinger said. "We're offering those opportunities."
The FTC's Schwartzman warned consumers to beware of scammers who might send e-mails pretending to offer a free report as a way to elicit personal information. She said the credit bureaus are prohibited from sending e-mails or using pop-up ads.
On the Net:
Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov