Yesterday, I received the following question from a confused consumer:

“I see a lot of offers for free credit report online, and even on TV commercials. But whenever I visit the actual website and read the information there, it seems like I have to sign up for something and pay a fee. Is there any way to get my free reports with no strings attached? Where do I go?”

If you share this reader’s confusion, let me start by saying you are not alone. This is one of the most common questions I receive from consumers, and it’s easy to understand why. I see those “free credit report” commercials on TV all the time. Sometimes I can’t even get that song out of my head, but that’s another subject entirely. I also encounter a ton of banner ads for companies who offer the same thing online.

But therein lies the confusion. Some of them charge a fee, while others do not. Some offer credit scores and other items in addition to the reports. It’s completely confusing, so I am happy to set the record straight.

Here’s what you need to know:

The Only Website Recommended by the FTC

By law, you are entitled to one free credit report per year, from all three of the companies who maintain them. This includes TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. These are privately-held companies who maintain historical financial data on U.S. consumers. When you apply for a car loan or a mortgage loan, and the lender “checks your credit,” this is who they request the information from.

The companies mentioned above have a joint website through which you can request all three of your reports at once. The website is AnnualCreditReport.com. In terms of getting your reports for free, this is the only website that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) endorses and recommends.

Your Score Comes Separately

Your credit score is a different story. You will have to request it separately, and you will probably have to pay for it. This is where a lot of people get confused, and I think product marketing is the problem. Many companies will actually package all of this information together and then add on some kind of credit monitoring / identify theft prevention service. So they use the “free” credit reports and scores as an enticement, but then you find out you have to sign up for the monitoring service in order to get the freebies. Like I said, it can all get pretty confusing!

That’s why I used the phrase “no strings attached” in the title of this article. To the best of my knowledge, the only place where you can get a totally free credit report with no strings is through the jointly owned website mentioned above – the one recommended by the FTC. Hopefully this will alleviate your confusion once and for all.

Citation Note: The original version of this article was written by Brandon Cornett. Brandon is the publisher of the Home Buying Institute, which includes one of the largest libraries of mortgage advice for home buyers.

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