A MAJOR new credit resource for homebuyers and other consumers is set to go live Wednesday - www.AnnualCreditReport.com.
Not only will it provide congressionally mandated free credit reports for millions of Americans - one per year from each of the three national credit bureaus - but it will also offer extensive tools to help you monitor your credit files and guard against identification theft.
Though designed to be most efficient as an online resource, AnnualCreditReport.com also would be accessible by toll-free telephone (877-322-8228) and by regular mail (PO Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281).
Consumers anywhere should be able to visit AnnualCreditReport.com starting Wednesday, but eligibility for free annual credit reports will be phased in over the coming 10 months on a schedule moving from West to East.
Maryland consumers already are entitled to a free credit report each year.
Creation of AnnualCreditReport.com was required by Congress in last year's Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. Among other provisions, the law ordered the three national credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - to design and operate a centralized resource where consumers can obtain a free copy of each of their bureau reports once every 12 months.
The three giant, private credit firms each receive billions of bits of data on more than 200 million consumers every year from banks, credit card companies, department stores, collection agencies, and local governments.
The bureaus' electronic files frequently contain different data - some creditors report to one or two bureaus, some report to none - which is why Congress mandated reports from each.
Visitors to AnnualCreditReport.com will first be asked to identify the state where they live. Between now and the final rollout date of Sept. 1 for East Coast states, only residents of eligible states will be able to proceed to the second step at the site - ordering their free reports.
Temporarily ineligible consumers will be able to link to each of the credit bureaus' own Web sites, and order their reports for a fee - generally about $9.95 per report.
Visitors eligible for free reports Wednesday - an estimated 70 million consumers - will be asked to enter key personal identifying information - all kept secure by a barrage of anti-hacker technology - ranging from date of birth to Social Security number.
Since some of the authentication questions will be highly specific - the name of your mortgage company, for example, or the amount of your monthly mortgage payment - the three bureaus recommend having your personal financial documents handy when you visit the site. They emphasize, however, that the authentication procedures will never require you to divulge credit card or bank account numbers.
AnnualCreditReport.com will not require anybody to order all three bureau reports simultaneously.
Stretching out your right to a free annual credit report over a period of months might be useful for anyone who anticipates significant financial events during the year ahead.
Say, for example, that you plan to buy a house early next year and you are eligible for a free report Wednesday. You could order your Experian free credit report now and check for any errors or omissions, well in advance of applying for a mortgage.
Suppose you also expect to start a new business next year. In advance of your loan application, you could order your free TransUnion report, again checking for errors or omissions that could affect your borrowing costs. Finally, you could order your free Equifax report next fall, and start the whole process over again next December.
Once you've selected a bureau report, AnnualCreditReport.com will zip you to that bureau's domain, where you should get your file within a minute or two. The bureau also will let you order your credit score, plus an array of other proprietary credit tools and services.
For example, only Equifax will sell FICO scores - the scores used by most mortgage lenders to evaluate your application for a loan. The cost will be $6.95 per FICO score. TransUnion and Experian will sell their own non-FICO scores for about $4 each.
Experian will offer a new "triple alert" credit-monitoring system that, for $4.95 a month, will notify consumers of every "ping" - every inquiry or file change however minor - in each of their three online bureau credit files.
The alerts will come in the form of cell phone text messages and e-mails, and will direct consumers to check their customized credit pages at an Experian site to see any changes.
Ken Harney's e-mail address is KenHarney@earthlink.net.