You may have heard about the "no borrower left behind" legislation passed last December promising a free credit report for everyone each year.

If, like me, you picked up the phone and called one of the national credit reporting bureaus to get your freebie, you were probably a bit thrown by the phone tree. During no point did the automated voice on the line mention what number to push to get what was rightfully mine.

That's because I can't get my gratis credit report until Sept. 1, 2005.

Once FACTA (the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act) is in full bloom, the three nationwide consumer credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- must provide consumers a free copy of their credit report once a year. There will be a website, toll-free telephone number, and postal address for consumers to request the goods. (Specialty credit reporting agencies -- ones that keep files on employment, tenant, medical, and insurance history -- will also be required to cough up a free peek once a year.)

Get out your calendars: FACTA is taking a while to get off the ground. Here's the timetable. If you reside in one of the Western states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), start dialing on December 1, 2004. Midwesterners (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) will become eligible for a free report on March 1, 2005. (Sorry, Mom, that's not enough incentive for me to move back to Kansas.) Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) will become eligible on June 1, 2005; and Eastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia), Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories will become eligible on September 1, 2005.

Until then, the only way to qualify for a free report is to endure some hardship.

  • If you believe your credit report has been used to perpetrate a fraud, you get a free copy of your credit report! While that might not make up for the hassle of dealing with identity theft, it does soften the blow.

  • If you have been denied credit for any reason and a credit report was used in making the decision, you have a right to a free look at this report. You have 60 days to phone or mail your request. Remember to mention that you were denied credit, insurance, or a job.

  • If you are unemployed or actively seeking employment, or if an employer or potential employer has requested a credit report, you may have access to a free report.

  • If you are receiving public welfare assistance, you can get a free report.

Until FACTA comes to a state near you (or life hands you a bum deal), your credit file's gonna cost you. No, really. It will.

Despite those Internet ads or late-night TV commercials offering a free credit report, getting a truly zero-dollar report is a pipe dream. Most "free credit reports" come with a lot of strings you need to snip to avoid paying even more than the going rate for a report. Many companies will give you a glimpse of one of your files if you sign up for a free 30-day trial to their "Credit Cop" service (or whatever they call their credit monitoring service). If you forget to call off the cops in time, you may be automatically re-billed for the service. Additionally, marketers use the free report bait as a mining field for active Internet addresses. Unless you like spam and relish becoming "a live one" to these marketers, I suggest you pass on the free report.

In addition to the three major credit reporting agencies, there are legitimate services that offer fairly priced reports. Some of them are even better at presenting the information in an easily understandable format. So if you can't wait for FACTA to kick in, decide what it's worth to see what's in your credit file.