Heads up: That 'free' credit report may not be free after all

Which website offers free credit reports? Hint: Don't search for 'free credit reports'

Jack has a straightforward question that shouldn't have to be asked:

"What is the link for the once-a-year free reports from the three credit-reporting agencies?"

First of all, federal law requires that each of the big credit firms — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — provide one free credit report to consumers annually.

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I can't stress this enough: It's important that you take them up on this. If you don't scour your credit file for errors or fraud, no one will. When it comes to maintaining good credit, you're the one who has to take responsibility.

That said, it would be nice if the playing field wasn't littered with sneaky companies trying to trick you into getting your credit report through them and then charging you for things you didn't want, such as credit monitoring that comes with a monthly fee.

Here's a perfect example of why Jack asked his question. If you Google "free credit report," the first listing that comes up will be FreeCreditReport.com. "Get your free credit report here," it says on the Google link.

FreeCreditReport.com is in fact owned by one of the credit firms, Experian, and its purpose is to get you to sign up for Experian's credit monitoring, which can run $19.95 a month.

The site that Jack and all other consumers want to go to instead is AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the one the credit firms were required by law to establish so that consumers could access their files.

And here's a tip: Since each of big three credit firms has to provide one free report a year, space them out every four months. This will provide year-round credit monitoring for nothing.

If you have a consumer question, email me at asklaz@latimes.com or contact me via Twitter @Davidlaz.

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