Are “FREE” credit report/score offers really free? No.

By law, credit bureaus are supposed to keep consumer credit reports accurate and are supposed to protect them from misuses such as identity theft. Public concern over identity theft and low credit scores has allowed the bureaus to take advantage of their failure to comply with these responsibilities by aggressively marketing over-priced credit monitoring services as if they are free.

Often, the subscription add-on services are marketed through your bank or credit card company. You  will see a monthly bill for between $7.99 and $18.99 or more on your statement. You may start to incur these monthly charges – labeled for credit monitoring or identity theft protection - after you order a “free” credit report or “free” (sometimes $1) credit score. That’s right, if you don’t cancel immediately, they’ll begin to bill you.  If the bank or credit bureau won’t reverse the fees, complain to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

No matter where you live, you are entitled to obtain a free credit report each year by law from each of the 3 big credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Transunion. The credit bureaus have been required to establish a centralized free report site at www.annualcreditreport.com. Watch out for imposter sites with similar names.

Using this U.S. Federal Trade Commission website is the safest way to order your free report by web, phone or postal mail. Be careful: if you misspell the annualcreditreport.com website, there are dangerous copycat sites as well. Even then, be careful of “upsell” offers from the bureaus.

You can choose to “stagger” your free report requests to monitor your credit over time by ordering from a different bureau every three or four months.

Your reports from different bureaus may not be exactly the same, but there is no reason to pay for over-priced credit monitoring services. They don’t stop identity theft and they don’t raise your credit score. The FTC website lists numerous other ways to qualify for free credit reports, including if you are unemployed or suspect you are a victim of identity theft.

Also, residents of Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Vermont are able to get an additional free credit report annually from each of the three bureaus, under state laws. More information on how to request these should be available from the main credit bureau websites (Experian.com, Equifax.com, and transunion.com), or is available here: http://money.msn.com/credit-rating/get-extra-credit-reports-for-free.aspx.

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