By law, you are entitled to a free credit report.  Get it on a regular basis!

Your credit report is more important now than ever.  A recent survey indicated that one in six employers run a credit report on prospective employess -- and this at a time when folks credit is potentially at risk with the recession and credit crisis.  Landlords often run credit reports on potential renters.  And, of course, if you expect to borrow any time soon, you need to know your credit report is correct.  Your credit report is also an important means by which you can keep vigilant against identity theft - such thieves often open a new credit line in your name, charge things up and ruin your credit.

So how can you easily keep an eye on this?  The various credit bureaus are more than happy to charge you for all kinds of credit monitoring services, but you don't need to subscribe to something like that.  Under federal law, you are entitled to at least one free credit report from each of the three nationwide reporting agencies each year.  With three agencies, if you stagger them, you can get a new free credit report every four months.  And that's exactly what we recommend.

Since there are so many programs and subscriptions for credit reports which charge you - unnecessarily - make sure that you always start at the same place, the website set up specifically to access your free annual reports.  The address is http://www.annualcreditreport.com/

Please check for yourself - the US Federal Trade Commission maintains a web page explaining this, and linking to that site:  http://www.ftc.gov/freereports

Choose one of the agencies - there are three:  TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.  Mark on your calendar that today you got a report from whichever one you chose.  Then open up your calendar to a date 4 months from now and mark down another credit reporting agency.  And move ahead 4 more months and mark a reminder for the third agency.  And, of course, a year from now, you start again with that first one you chose.  The order doesn't matter, but you do need to make sure that whatever order you start with, you wait a full year before getting one from the same agency a second time.

They may offer to give your your FICO score (or other credit score).  They will almost certainly try to charge you for that, or sell you other services.  But you absolutely can get your credit report itself for free.   If you are planning on borrowing soon, you may want to pay for that credit score, but generally, if you're just reviewing your credit report for errors and to make sure that you are keeping track of all your open accounts, you don't need that - just the free credit report should be enough.

You should be able to fill in a form on the screen, answer a few questions and they will generate your credit report instantly.  Typically they'll ask you things like your social security number, the size of some recurring payment you make (like your car payment or your mortgage), where you live and perhaps where you lived previously.  A few moments later, your report is created and shown to you.  Print that report.  You may be able to save it to your computer as a PDF, which is convenient.  But do print a copy.

And now review it.  Make sure that you recognize every open account.  This is a great chance to remind yourself to shut down accounts you never use like that store credit card you opened in order to get 10% off your purchases that day.  

And if you find errors, under federal law both the information provider (whoever provided that information to the credit reporting agency - perhaps a credit card company, etc)  and the reporting agency are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information.  Contact the agency and the information provider immediately.  For some more information about how to handle this, see the very helpful information at the Federal Trade Commission's site:  http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre34.shtm

So get your free credit reports.  It's free and it's easy and it can do you a lot of good.

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