Get your free credit report ­ but use caution

Get your free credit report � but use caution As promised under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act of 2003, Midwesterners are now entitled to get free credit reports.

"The three major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) are required to provide you (every 12-month period) with a report of the information they have regarding your credit transactions. It is important that everyone take advantage of this free

offer," South Dakota State

University Extension Family Resource Management Specialist Liz Gorham said.

"It will allow South Dakotans to dispute negative information on their records and will also serve as a check against identity theft. For example, a sudden high balance on a seldom-used credit card could signal unauthorized use."

Access the three major credit bureaus through the following single Web site:

Using other Web sites to obtain a free credit report can lead you to an impostor site that offers the credit report packaged with other credit services at cost.

Note that the actual credit report is free, but the credit score (which can determine whether you get credit and, if so, at what rate) is available only at an additional cost. Even the Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian sites offer other services at an additional cost, but you are not required to sign up for them to get your free credit report, Gorham said.

For example, TransUnion consumers are automatically selected to receive marketing information and have their information shared with affiliates and partners. Experian and Equifax have potentially confusing menus that do not clearly distinguish between the free areas of credit report access and the for-pay sections.

Some imposter sites are not secure sites and/or are collecting information for identity theft purposes. It is for these reasons that you must use care in correctly typing the Web site address above when requesting your free credit reports, Gorham said.

Another option is to request your credit report by mail by filling out a request form (downloaded from the above mentioned site) and mailing it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

For those who are not computer savvy or who don't want to wade through the lists of fee-required services, a third option is to request your credit reports by calling 1-877-322-8228. There will be a simple verification process; your reports will be mailed to you.

To prevent identity theft when ordering your free credit report, Gorham recommended the following precautions:

* Ask that only the last four digits of your Social Security number be displayed on the reports to be sent to you.

* If you request your report be mailed to you, have it mailed to a secure mailbox.

* Know that you are not required to give out your e-mail address to obtain the credit reports.

* If you notice that the Web site is not secure, close your browser and start over. (Secure sites will have a padlock logo in the corner and/or the address will read "https://" instead of just "http://".)

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