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Credit Check, Please!
Free access to credit files may produce more questions than answers. Where can you turn for help?

By Amy Gergely, Intersections Inc.

So, youíve performed your civic duty. Weeks of pre-election stress are finally behind you. Where do you turn your attention now? How about a check on your own financial health?

Next month, the Federal Government is set to begin offering U.S. consumers a tool intended to help them better manage their credit information and protect against identity theft. Passed last year as part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), the new benefit will eventually provide all consumers free access to credit reports from each of the three national credit reporting agencies at least once a year.

Why is this important? Because financially speaking, you may have a lot to lose. A recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, found that one in four credit reports contained errors serious enough to threaten the consumerís ability to get credit.

And when it comes to identity theft, financial experts agree that all consumers should regularly monitor their credit reports Ė and the more often, the better. A quick check of your credit history is one way to start the process of discovering if someone has stolen your identity, a growing crime that has affected more than 27 million U.S. consumers in just five years, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Here are a few things you should know to help you make the most of this new law.

  • Because the provision will be activated regionally Ė west to east Ė over a nine month period, free credit reports wonít be available to all U.S. consumers until September of next year.
  • Once you become eligible, there may at times be delays in receiving your reports from the credit reporting agencies due to high volumes of requests.
  • Since the government didnít mandate customer service improvements at the credit reporting agencies to ensure consumers can get their questions answered, deciphering your credit report may lead to frustration for some. For those who have never seen their credit report, or even those who have, making sense of the document may seem like trying to assemble an IKEA bookshelf with no instruction sheet.
  • The new law will not entitle you to free credit scores, the measure most lenders use to determine your creditworthiness. Youíll have to pay extra to see those.

So what can you do if all the buzz has piqued your interest, but the new law hasnít yet caught up with you?

  • Donít wait. There are a number of services that provide instant access to your credit reports right now for a reasonable price. Some, including www.identityguard.com, even combine the reports from all three major credit reporting agencies in one easy-to-read document and include your credit scores, as well as credit education and one-on-one personal assistance in case you have questions about the information in your reports.
  • Donít stop there. Credit reports are snapshots of your financial health at one point in time, but credit files are living, breathing databases of information about your ongoing financial activity. If you are considering a major purchase, or are concerned about identity theft, consider subscribing to a service that monitors your credit files every day to see who is accessing, and may be using, your information. Services, such as www.identityguard.com, even offer credit education and fraud recovery specialists to answer your questions and help you recover if you are a victim of fraud.
  • Find help. Check with your bank or credit card company to find out if it provides any services to help you monitor your credit or recover from identity theft. More and more are offering free or low-cost services to assist customers who are victims of fraud, including personal recovery assistance and identity theft insurance.

If youíd rather wait for your free reports, be patient. Just make sure you can say four years from now that you are better off financially because you know exactly where you stand.

 

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