What Should You look for From a Free Credit Report Website?
By now, you should be well aware of the importance of credit scores and the need to keep a close eye on yours. That requires monitoring your credit report, and according to U.S. law, everyone is entitled to one free copy of their credit report from all three major bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — once a year.
But with so many sites touting their “free” credit services, how do you know which one to go with?
First, understand that the only site that is legally required to give you the free reports is AnnualCreditReport.com. That is the portal supported by the government program and all three bureaus. If all you are looking for is a copy of your report once a year with no other services or strings attached, this is the site to use.
Pro tip: Rather than request all three at the same time, consider requesting one every four months, rotating through the bureaus. You might find that no two reports are exactly alike, but they should list the same accounts and activity. And by spacing them out, you will have a better overall picture of your credit health on an ongoing basis, rather than just an annual snapshot.
If you are actively working to build or improve your credit profile or you have been the victim of identity theft or a security breach, pulling a report once every four months might not be enough. There are a number of paid service providers on the market, each promising to help you monitor your credit and, in some cases, alert you whenever new activity is detected.
The paid sites can essentially be divided into two types: credit monitoring and fraud protection. Credit monitoring is for those who just want to keep an eye on their credit picture and have no immediate reason to suspect their privacy is at risk. Fraud protection, on the other hand, is more focused on catching and stopping identity theft.
Most of these service providers charge a monthly fee, but many offer a free trial period of at least one month. Here are a few features to look for; not every site offers every feature, so prioritize what matters to you and go from there.
- Credit reports and scores: One of the biggest draws of these sites is the ability to pull and view your current credit report and credit score whenever and as often as you like. (These are considered “soft inquiries” and will not affect your score.) Some sites allow you to access your report from one bureau as often as you like and pay an additional fee to pull all three.
- New-credit monitoring: Most sites will offer to notify you when new credit is being opened in your name and whenever a hard inquiry appears. New credit could include credit cards, new home or auto loans, and even new “branded” credit cards tied to and used at one specific store. This is a first line of defense against identity theft: If you get an alert that there is a new card open in your name that you didn’t request, it’s time to start doing some research to find out what’s going on.
- Bank account monitoring: Some sites also offer to monitor banking systems, looking for new checking accounts being opened in your name. This is a nice feature to have if you’re concerned about identity theft.
- Other accounts: Most credit monitoring sites focus on the accounts that will impact your credit, but some go beyond that with the option to monitor additional types of accounts. Things like file sharing, for example, can be added to subscriptions on some sites.
- Reimbursement: While not a common feature, there are options out there that include financial reimbursement if your identity is stolen, and credit is racked up in your name that can’t be otherwise canceled. It’s not a must-have feature, since most credit card companies won’t hold you responsible for purchases you didn’t actually make (assuming you report the theft of your cards or accounts), but it could come in handy if the system’s safeguards fail.
- Score simulations: Many of the credit monitoring sites offer suggestions for ways you can improve your credit scores. They look at your open accounts, payment history and other factors, and will suggest specific courses of action you might want to consider. On some sites, the advice is more general, letting you know the steps you could take to see improvement. On other others, it can be very specific, using an online calculator to see exactly how various actions would impact your score, whether good or bad. If you are actively looking to improve your credit score, the sites with more robust simulators might be a good choice.
Whether you just want an annual look at your report to ensure there are no errors, or you want full-time monitoring to catch fraud or suspicious activity as it happens, there are sites out there that can help. Don’t be afraid to do a little research before committing to one, however, and don’t agree to give up your credit card or Social Security number unless you are absolutely positive you know what the site plans to do with them.
Finally, beware of sites that use misspellings of popular credit report and monitoring services — don’t just click on a link in the Google search results page without verifying it’s the right one. Be alert, be critical, and be proactive about your credit, and you’ll be on your way to a higher score and peace of mind in no time at all.
Are you using a paid service or other means to monitor your credit? Share your experience by clicking on the links below!