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Monitor Your Own Credit

Concerned about what's on your credit report? If you're not, you should be. Your credit score is more important than ever to your financial well-being. It affects whether you can borrow to buy a house, your loan rates, if you can secure credit for future purchases, and if you can cover yourself in an emergency. A potential employer may even (with your permission) want to check your credit to determine your suitability as an employee.

For all those reasons, as well as the ever-increasing risk of identity theft, you need to start paying close attention to what's contained in your credit reports with TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax -- the three national consumer credit reporting agencies that monitor whether or not you've been an upright citizen when it comes to credit. Thankfully, a recent amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act makes it easier than ever to get your reports. The amendment requires each of the three agencies to provide you with a copy of your credit report once every 12 months for free. The only catch? You have to request it.

To obtain a free copy of your credit report, you have three options:

  1. Ordering by phone at 1-877-322-8228.
  2. Ordering online at http://www.annualcreditreport.com/.
  3. Completing the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mailing it to:

    Annual Credit Report Request Service
    P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Many consumer experts will recommend that you obtain copies of your credit reports from all three major agencies simultaneously. This makes some sense; each report is likely to contain slightly different information, and you can compare them side-by-side. However, if you instead spread your requests out throughout the year, you can both find out what all three credit bureaus are reporting about you and effectively monitor any changes to your credit over time.

For example, say that in January you request a report from TransUnion, then in May a report from Experian, then follow up with a request to Equifax in September. The downside is remembering when to make your requests; the upside is that every four months (three times a year) you'll be tracking any and all changes made to your credit history. Note that these free credit reports do not include your credit score (aka your FICO), for which the bureaus charge an additional fee.

If, however, you have been the victim of identity theft or are noticing a pattern of irregularities, you might want to enlist the help of a credit monitoring plan like Truecredit.com's three-bureau credit monitoring service, which offers you unlimited access to all three credit reports and credit scores, 24-hour notification of any significant changes to your history, and up to $25,000 in identity theft insurance coverage for $14.95 per month.

If you decide you want the added protection of a credit monitoring service and are willing to pay, don't get lured by those that offer to monitor just one of your three credit reports for a reduced price (typically around $9.95 per month). Since each of the credit bureaus may have slightly different information about you, simply monitoring one does little to keep you protected.

Want more information about your credit score? Try these articles:

This article is adapted from theMotley Fool Green Light "Money Answers" archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!  

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool'sRule Your Retirement newsletter.


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