WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans who want to make sure their credit reports are accurate or check their financial histories can get the information for free under a program starting today.

The Federal Trade Commission is rolling out the service in phases. Residents in 13 Western states will get first crack at requesting a free credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus that maintain them.

Banks and other lenders use the data in the reports to evaluate loan applicants. Access to free reports was mandated in consumer privacy legislation President Bush signed into law last year.

“The program was designed to help consumers get a better understanding of their credit and to promote accuracy in terms of consumer information,” FTC spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman said.

Before the new law, consumers had access to free credit reports only if they were denied credit, unemployed, on welfare or believed that they were victims of identity theft. A handful of states also allow residents access to free reports.

People in Midwestern states will become eligible for free reports on March 1, followed by Southern states on June 1 and Eastern states on Sept. 1.

The FTC is staggering the requesting period to help the nation’s three major credit bureaus — Equifax Inc., Experian Information Solutions and Trans Union — deal with an expected crush of people asking for free credit histories.

To get a free credit report, consumers can log on to www.AnnualCreditReport.com, a new Web site created jointly by the credit reporting companies. They also can call 1-877-FTC-HELP or mail a standardized form to Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281. Consumers are allowed one free report per year from each of the agencies.

Some consumer advocates have criticized the FTC for allowing the credit bureaus to advertise numerous fee-based products and services on the website.


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