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Federal law allows you to check your credit reports for free every year. Here's how to access them--and protect your credit rating.

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This story appears in the September 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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