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Starting September 1, every U.S. citizen has the right to a free annual report from each of the three major credit bureaus-Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. People in some parts of the country have had that ability for a while, either because of state laws or the fact that the new federal rule was phased in, applying to different places at different times. Western states were given the right first, followed by the Midwest, the South and, as of September, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
With identity theft rising quickly nationwide, it's a good idea to take advantage of the new system. Order your credit reports every year, check them, and if you see any problems, put what's called a "fraud alert" on them. That tells lenders and creditors that you may have been a victim of identity theft and forces them to check with you personally before opening new accounts.
To best monitor your credit, ask for the reports four months apart. In other words, request Equifax's in January, Experian's in May and TransUnion's in September. It's relatively simple to order the reports and spread them throughout the year. Visit one website, www.annualcreditreport.com, fill out the questionnaire, and indicate when you'd like to receive the reports. You can also call (877) 322-8228 or write to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. If someone is co-opting your name, there's a chance it will show up on all the reports.
Be aware that if you go through the credit bureaus directly instead of the consolidated site, they'll pitch you protection plans that cost anywhere from $4.95 to $9.95 per month. And those who don't know the web address for www.annualcreditreport.com will have a hard time finding it. Type "free credit report" into a search engine, and you'll get dozens of other sites trying to sell you something. At last count, the credit bureaus alone had registered nearly 100 websites with similar-sounding names to lure the unwary.
The bottom line: Protect yourself. Get the free credit reports, read them, and take action when necessary. But don't assume the credit bureaus or anyone else will help you along the way. You have to be your own advocate.
Scott Bernard Nelson is assistant business editor at The Oregonian and a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.