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When a 'Free' Credit Report Isn't Really Free

You've seen the funny commercials on TV, maybe even sang along with the snazzy jingle, and it seems like a great deal. They advertise free credit reports and tell you about how much your credit score matters.

On the surface, it seems logical: You know you're entitled to a copy of your credit report, by law, once every 12 months. But here's the catch: Your credit report and your credit score are 2 separate items and no matter where you go, you'll have to pay to get your credit score.

Q: What's the danger in going to the wrong site to get your free credit report?

A: These sites hook you with offers of so-called free credit reports while aggressively marketing other services. Go to any site other than annualcreditreport.com and you may wind up paying needlessly for services you don't want. Or, you could pay $75 for a credit score that otherwise costs $8 to $12. In one example, a site advertised a "free credit report" but failed to disclose adequately that, if you signed up, you automatically would be enrolled in a credit-monitoring program and charged $79.95. Many disclosures are in the fine print and easy to overlook.

Q: What are some sites to stay away from?

A: The one most heavily advertised is freecreditreport.com. Other variations include free-credit-reports.com, freecreditreportsinstantly.com, thefreecreditreportsource.com, creditreport.com, creditreporting.com, and nationalcreditreport.com.

Q: Which site allows access to free credit reports without trying to sell unnecessary services?

A: Go to annualcreditreport.com, which was established after the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 gave consumers the right to obtain--once a year--a free credit report from each of the big three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Or, you can call toll-free 877-322-8228.

Q: Should I order the three annual free credit reports all at once?

A: You can order them all at the same time. A better strategy is to stagger your requests throughout the year. Order a free report from one agency, then wait four months and order a report from a different agency, then wait another four months and order the third report. After a year, start the process over again. That way, you're more likely to detect errors--or even fraudulent accounts set up in your name--than if you wait a whole year to look at all three of your reports.

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