SIKESTON -- Beginning today consumers in the Midwest will have the opportunity to check their credit reports for free.
"All consumers -- if they have a credit history -- should take advantage and view a copy of their credit reports," said Jim Gardner, press secretary for the state Attorney General's office. "And most everyone has a credit history -- if they don't, they must be living in a cave on a mountaintop every day of their lives."
According to the attorney general's office, the three credit reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union -- have set up a Web site, www.annualcreditreport.com, for consumers to order their credit reports.
Typically, copies of credit reports cost about $25 each, and now they will be free once a year, Gardner said. To request a copy, consumers will need to provide their name, date of birth and Social Security number. For security purposes, the credit reporting companies also may ask consumers for information only the consumers will know.
Those who use the Web site should be able to access their information immediately.
Credit reports show a person's bill payment history, the accounts they've had in past and past addresses, Gardner said.
"Generally any time you've been granted credit by a company there will be a record of that and your habits as far as when and how you paid your bills," Gardner said.
Reports also include whether the person was sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy. The information is used by employers, creditors, insurers, lending institutions and others to evaluate applications for credit, loans and jobs, among other things.
Once a credit report is accessed, consumers should look for any type of suspicious activity or activity they did not authorize, Gardner said.
"It's not unusual for there to be erroneous information on accounts that may not be yours," Gardner said. "I once pulled a copy of my credit report and it showed I had a Sears account that I opened in 1972. I was 6 years old then so it wasn't my account."
Similarly, Gardner said he lived in a county where a man who had the same name and was about the same age also lived. Every now and then the man's information would show up on Gardner's account, he recalled.
"Sometimes there will be old accounts and you forget you may have opened it, and it may not be bad information, but if you want to open a line of credit, you may want to have it removed," Gardner said.
Consumers may also want to order their reports from each of the three credit reporting companies because each report may contain different information not contained in other reports.
Before someone applies for an auto loan or home loan or even before job interview, it's not a bad idea to pull that information and make sure it's accurate.
"Certain employers will use credit reports for hiring individuals, especially if they will be handling a large amount of cash or if they will be in charge of financial accounts," Gardner said.
Gardner said last week's news that identity thieves had stolen personal information on approximately 145,000 Americans from the data collection business Choicepoint highlights the need for consumers to obtain a copy of their credit report.
"Reviewing your credit reports on a regular basis can help you spot not only inaccuracies that could hurt your credit rating, but also fraudulent attempts by identity thieves to steal your credit," said Attorney General Jay Nixon in a statement released Friday.
Under the change to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the free reports are being phased in across the country over a nine-month period, which began in the western states Dec. 1, 2004.
In addition to Missouri, other states being phased in today include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
If consumers find inaccurate information in their credit report, they should contact the credit reporting company in writing to tell the company what information they believe is inaccurate, the attorney general's office said.
The attorney general's office also cautions consumers to beware of "phishing" attempts that might be related to the free credit reports. The three credit reporting companies and the Web site will not send consumers e-mails asking for the personal information. Any e-mails or pop-up ads claiming to be from annualcreditreport.com are most likely scam attempts, officials said. Consumers may also order their credit reports by calling toll-free 1-877
-322-8228; information requested this way will be mailed within 15 days. Forms for consumers who wish to mail in their request may be obtained through the Federal Trade Commission Web site at www.ftc.gov/credit.