Protect yourself: get a free credit report

I wanted to write down 3-4 easy steps to protect yourself from identity theft and help you check your free annual credit reports.

Credit check options

- If you haven’t checked your credit in the last year, visit the official site that lets you get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. The site is annualcreditreport.com and you’ll have to be on the lookout for upsells like “Find out your credit score for $5.95″ or “Sign up for a credit monitoring service.” But this option is a safe and free way to get access to your credit report from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

- Suppose you don’t want credit card companies sending you offers by snail mail. After all, a thief could steal the offer from your mailbox and use it to open a credit card in your name. Again, there’s a free, official service from the three major credit bureaus to stop getting “free credit cards” offer by postal mail. The site is www.optoutprescreen.com. You can opt-out online for five years, or print out and mail a piece of paper to do a permanent opt-out.

- If you had any type of open credit account between 1987 and May 28, 2008 (which is probably most adults in the United States), you can receive nine months of free credit monitoring. TransUnion, one of the big three credit unions, is settling a class action lawsuit and provides this monitoring for free if you sign up before September 24, 2008. The official site is www.listclassaction.com and you can choose from several options. I chose the nine month credit monitoring service.

If you think you might have been a victim of identity theft or are at higher risk for identity theft (e.g. someone stole a laptop that might have had personal information on it), you have a couple options. A fraud alert requests that before a new lender opens up an account, they take extra steps to verify your identity like calling you on the phone. It should be free if you call the credit bureaus, but it only lasts for 90 days, so you would need to renew the fraud alert every three months.

Meanwhile, a credit freeze is just what it sounds like. It freezes your credit record completely, so that identity thieves should not be able to open new credit accounts in your name. A credit freeze costs $10 per credit bureau each time you want to freeze or un-freeze your credit record.

I used the first three websites earlier to get my free credit report, opt out of getting more credit card offers, and sign up to for a credit monitoring service. Again, all of these are free or official sites; I don’t get any money for recommending them. :)

Other options

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can also get a public records report on yourself to see what turns up. I believe you can get this report free once a year as well from ChoicePoint. You can get more information here but I believe the short answer is that you need to print, fill out, and mail this one-page form (PDF link). You need to include a photocopy of your driver’s license or other ID and a copy of a utility/phone/credit card bill — see the instructions for the form (PDF link) for more info.

Do you know of other ways to protect yourself from identity theft or otherwise monitor your credit record or score?

29 Responses to Protect yourself: get a free credit report (Leave a comment)

  1. Dave

    Since you can get one free report from each of the 3 companies each year, I order one report every 4 months (one from Experian in January, 1 from TransUnion in May, etc.), instead of getting all 3 at once.

  2. One of the best protections you can do is BUY YOURSELF A SHREDDER.

    You can get them fairly cheap at any office supply or even department stores.

    I read a story a couple years ago about how someone had their credit card bills stolen from their mailbox – and of course, the credit card companies always send those blank checks trying to get you to either move your balance, or use the checks (which count as a cash advance and have a much higher interest rate) Anyway, the thieves took these checks and racked up into five figures debt before anyone realized it.

    I tried to get my credit card companies NOT to send the checks, but apparently that’s not an option. Heck, one of them kept sending me the checks for five months after I closed the account – that was an accident waiting to happen.

    Anyway, probably can’t watch the mailbox every minute, but I make sure I shred all those blank ‘checks’ as soon as they come in – don’t want them going in the trash or the recycle.

    The other thing I’ve done since day one – I have one single credit card that is devoted to internet purchases. I don’t use the other for online stuff, and I don’t use this credit card for offline stuff. That way, in case anything ever *does* happen (and earlier this year it did) I can shut down that one account without having to panic about all my other financial dealings.

  3. netmeg, if you think that a shredded is protection, you’d better think again.

    http://www.unshredder.com/

    Short of burning your papers or composting them, there is no safe way to throw anything in the trash. If you’re paranoid of course.

    But a shredder is not as secure as you may think. You’d be better off putting the shredded pieces at the bottom of the litter box. There is no better protection than some smelly cat poo :)

  4. If someone is *really* determined to steal *my* identity, they’re probably gonna do it – at least for a while – no matter what I do.

    I still think shredding will do fine for most people at a most reasonable price.

  5. Hey Matt. You should have mentioned http://www.freeidentityprotect.com

    freeIDENTITYprotect basically walks you through doing all of the actions you listed above, and then sends you an email reminder when it’s time to get your credit report again (and from which agency), or redo your fraud alert, etc.

    It’s 100% free (but does offer some paid upgrades like insurance, etc) and it doesn’t record any user information. It basically opens every site in an iframe and includes instructions for how to fill out the forms.

    Check it out.

  6. ZoomInfinite

    Thanks for the helpful advice Matt. Once word of caution regarding credit monitoring companies — don’t fall victim to the cheesy late-night advertising of freecreditreport.com among others. They are not free and it’s well documented how difficult it is to cancel the recurring fees. annualcreditreport.com will get you the same information without the cost or hassle.

  7. You can opt-out online for five years, or print out and mail a piece of paper to do a permanent opt-out.

    Isn’t it rediculous that you have to request not to receive (offline) spam?

  8. Matt,

    Residents of most states can now freeze their credit with all three agencies, ranges from free to costing $5 or $10 bucks. I know the freeze works, got turned down for mortgage pre-approval after I put it in place, and had to produce my passport to open a new account:-)

    Morris

  9. My wife initiated a freeze a few years back at TransUnion after having her identity stolen. We found out later however, that one needs to be initiated at each agency. Since we’ve moved several times since then we don’t remember the phone number so it can’t be easily removed. At least we know it works…she can’t receive credit whenever it is checked through TU.

  10. Great blog post. It’s well worth it to spend the time to review credit reports and other financial data in order to prevent possible disaster.

  11. Chip

    My car runs on shredded paper.

    Well ok that + gas.

    So, question, how long before mattcutts.com ranks for “free credit report”?

  12. Thanks Matt, for informing everyone about identity theft.
    I know your blog gets a lot of traffic, and it’s a good way to reach people.
    Of course, the defacto site, in terms of Identity Theft in the United States is http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/
    On their site, they have the Identity Theft Affidavit, a pdf, that should be filled out and filed with any police reports or fraudulent activity on your bank accounts…

    Below is a list of Opt-Out sites that you can use to your benefit as well…

    Mail Opt-out
    Direct Marketing Association
    Mail Preference Service
    P.O. Box 9008
    Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008
    http://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailinglist

    Phone Opt-out
    Direct Marketing Association
    Telephone Preference Service
    P.O. Box 9014
    Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014
    http://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offtelephone

    E-mail Opt-out
    Direct Marketing Association
    E-mail Preference Service
    http://www.dmaconsumers.org/optoutform_emps.shtml

    I created a site directly for Identity Theft, http://www.whoelseisme.com, on how to prevent it, how to fix it, including the names and numbers of all 50 Attorney Generals for the Unitied States, as well as the mailing address and phone number of over 100 major banks fraud department.

    Basic site, but packed full of info, and it’s all free information that I gleamed across…

    Hope that helps Matt.
    Jake

  13. Thanks, Matt.

    I tried your first two links, as they seem right up my street, but they’re only available to IP addresses located within the US.

    I wonder if anyone knows of similar services for UK residents.

  14. Valid post Matt, Interestingly enough our local radio station was also highlighting the fact that you should get a credit report every 18 months so that you catch any fraudulent activity as soon as possible. It’s just something that you would never think of!

  15. I sure hope all of these organizations check the identity of the people who request these scans well enough…

  16. I use freecreditreport.com and they monitor my report and email me when updates are posted. I’ve caught unauthorized persons checking my credit over 10x and have gotten a negative report removed because of a bookkeeping error at my mortgage company. I think i pay about $12.99 a month for the reporting and i think it’s totally worth it.

    Carrie

  17. Geno

    Hey Matt, great topic. In something related to this, I think google adwords should police the free credit report searches a lot better. Basically, searchers think they are getting the free credit report from the government, but end up paying over $30 a month for credit monitoring service which sounds impossible to cancel. Do a search, and notice the tiny font where they say they charge you. It’s pretty hard to find, if you ask me. Especially with the word “free” in the domain.

    Links from msnbc report about this is here:

    http://redtape.msnbc.com/2007/07/costly-free-cre.html

    Also, lots of complaints from ripoffreport.com

    http://www.ripoffreport.com/searchresults.asp?q1=ALL&q4=&q6=&q3=&q2=&q7=&searchtype=0&submit2=Search!&q5=FREE+CREDIT+REPORT

  18. Erik

    Another good resource, mainly for identity theft protection services that cost money, is http://www.nextadvisor.com/identity_theft_protection_services/. I think it’s worth the money to get one of these if you’re really worried – they’re proactive vs. just checking your credit report which is reactive. NextAdvisor.com has some good info on their FAQs and blog, too.

  19. Nils

    good thing, that reminded me, that there’s a good side to ID cards and data stored. ID theft is an unknown crime in my country (germany)

  20. Jim Gaudet

    First to Chip – “how long before mattcutts.com ranks for “free credit report”?” – That’s too funny…

    It just so happens that I had to do some work for a company in this field. Of course it was to help them on the their SERP’s but it is very hard for this particular line of business.

    The big thing I learned and everyone should know is that you can really get a good hold of your credit if you have the time, and it is FREE. ftc.gov has everything you need to know, and you should really take the time to read the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as well as the Consumer Credit File Rights. These documents give you all the information you need to know about what to do when you receive your Credit Reports and find INACCURATE items on the reports.

    I haven’t posted here very often so I do not want to post any links, but you can go to ftc.gov and with a little searching find all your answers.

    ~ Jim

  21. sai

    Thanks for the info, Matt. Also, it’s important to check your child credit report. More info I wrote on this at http://www.childcreditreport.com

    thanks,

  22. Garetjax

    Matt, came to this thru your post on junk mail. So many people get roped into the wrong free credit report web sites, they always have a hook. annualcreditreport.com is the only authorized site to provide this no strings attached credit report. On thier site they recommend ordering a new report every four months. I get mine from MyJunkTree, they have a link to the above site and they remind me every four months to order a new report. Monitoring your credit report is your first line of defense in protecting your identity. I like Stop Junk Mail because I can stop all the credit card offers and other junk mail also.

  23. Thanks for the solid info Matt. It’s hard for me to trust the ads and sites that are always in my face for checking credit. I hope others find this info useful as well, although I think the audience that you have would rather get a link from you on the subject than read about the best free resources out there. ;)

  24. sathus

    Thats true, “AnnualCreditReport.com” gives you a free credit report and there are no hidden offers or services. But, what about Credit Scores ? Are there any websites offering credit scores for free.
    I recently came accross this website “http://www.GetUrScore.com”. This does provide the links to various providers of Free Credit Reports and Credit Scores and also gives the comparisons on the offers from different providers. But most of the providers will require you to sign up for services like “Credit Monitoring” or “Identity Theft subscription”

  25. The four ways to protect yourself from credit report are fantastic. I recently learned that TransUnion is being told to offer a 9 month credit monitoring service. That’s a great incentive for those that don’t take the time to check their credit.

    One other way to protect yourself from identity theft is actually by getting denied for credit. You are entitled to a review of your credit report when you apply for a credit card, for example, and get denied by the credit granter. Usually, you will have 60 days to do so, but I think it’s a great way to review it online and dispute those “false” credit entries. I have more information about this and other identity theft protection and prevention techniques on http://myidentitytheftblog.com

    All the best

  26. Tim

    I happen to be one of the owners of MyJunkTree and as a new company I search the web to see if we are getting any visibility out there and it seems the word is getting out. Thanks for the support.

    We launched the company because we were tired of all the junk mail we were receiving and we personally did not want to bounce all over the web to contact all the different companies to stop it all. First and foremost we wanted to let people choose what they wanted to let come to their home knowing that some people really do like some of the coupons and catalogs. So our clients choose what they want stopped.

    We also had to provide a service that is different than the other services out there, so here is what we offer:

    1. We have a database of over 1300 catalogs that you can choose to stop.
    2. We have over a 2000 charities/Non-Profits that you can stop solicitations from.
    3. Stop the delivery of the national phone directories.
    4. Stop the delivery of the weekly coupons.
    5. Stop the general credit card offers as well as the ones from your own major bank.
    6. Stop the miscellaneous junk mail from the data brokers.
    7. You can register on the National Do Not Call Registry from the website.
    8. You can order your no strings attached free annual credit report right from the website.
    9. We plant trees with every new membership.

    And, yes we are a paid service and yes you can do everything that we do for free, if you want to do all the research and spend the time contacting the companies yourself it can easily be done. We have just done all of the legwork for our clients and feel there is value in the service we provide.

  27. Steven

    Word of Warning- DO NOT use freecreditreport.com, they make it very hard to cancel, website crashes or does other weird stuff, then they will still charge you, non-refundable, even if you never log in and use the services

  28. gene

    i was the victim of identiy theft.
    It really sucked.
    I had to do a police repor t and then submit it to the credit agencies. the good part is that I got them to protect me for 10 years. I get a phone call now every time someone tries to open a credit card

  29. Really these steps can take to protect yourself from identity theft, incorrect bills and misreporting of your credit history.

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