If you keep a regular eye on your credit report, you’ll notice when identity thieves open accounts in your name and when errors are listed that might cause you problems in the future. Here’s how to do it for free.

US law entitles you to a free yearly credit report directly from each agency, but you’ll have to go elsewhere if you want to get your credit report more frequently. Don’t worry—it’s still free.

Credit Report Basics

RELATED: How to Stop Identity Thieves from Opening Accounts in Your Name

There are multiple credit reporting agencies. The “big three” in the USA are Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. When you apply for credit—such as a credit card, loan, or mortgage—the lender pulls a copy of your credit report from one or more of these agencies. It’s up to the lender which agency they use.

These credit reports usually have the same accounts reported on them. For example, if you have two credit cards and an auto loan, you should see those three accounts appear on all of the three reports. However, if you apply for a mortgage, you’ll only see the bank’s inquiry (or “pull”) appear on whichever credit report they looked at.

While the reports should usually show the same information, it’s a good idea to check all three to ensure the information is correct.

Note that, while these services will show you a “credit score,” those credit scores are actually a pretty complicated topic. The credit reporting agency just reports raw data—like a list of your accounts, usage, credit limits, and payment history—and creditors can run that through a number of different models to get the numerical score they use.

For TransUnion and Equifax, Use Credit Karma

The free Credit Karma website shows data from both your Equifax and TransUnion reports. They also have free apps available for iPhone and Android.

After creating your free account, you can sign into the web site and click My Overview > Score Details > Credit Report to view either your TransUnion or Equifax report. Toggle between the two at the top of the page. In the app, both reports are right at the top of the main page.

If there’s a problem with something here, you can click an account to see more information about how to dispute an error.

Credit Karma lets you see updated information every seven days, so you can always see a recent copy of your credit report. They also send you alert emails when a new account appears on your report, or if they detect any change. So, if an identity thief ever steals your information and opens a new account in your name, you’ll get an early heads-up. They also can notify you if they discover that your email address has been exposed in another company’s public data breach.

To customize this, click Profile & Settings > Communications & Monitoring on the Credit Karma site (or hit the Settings icon in the app). Ensure “Credit Monitoring” is checked to get the emails.

Note that, while Credit Karma does display credit score numbers, this score is calculated using the VantageScore model. Most lenders actually use the FICO score model—and there are even different FICO score models used for different types of credit—so the actual numerical score your lender sees will be different.

This service is completely free. Credit Karma makes money through using your credit score to recommend credit cards and loans you might want to apply for. But you never have to apply for anything here.

For Experian, Use FreeCreditScore.com

Experian doesn’t make its data available on Credit Karma, but it does operate its own free credit score website. FreeCreditScore.com is owned by Experian and works similarly to Credit Karma. Apps for iPhone and Android are also available.

Warning: Experian attempts to use this free service to upsell you. They want to sell you features like an updated report every single day and the ability to see all three credit reports in a single place. However, you do not have to spend any money to use this service. Just be careful what you click.

Once you’ve signed up for free, you can view your credit report and a FICO score. Click Reports & Scores > Credit Reports > Experian to view it.

The FreeCreditScore.com website shows you a new Experian credit report every 30 days. This is less convenient than Credit Karma’s 7 day window, but still much more convenient than requesting a free credit report once per year from the reporting agencies themselves.

As with Credit Karma, Experian’s service will email you whenever it notices a change to your credit report, such as a new account that’s been opened and reported in your name. This gives you a heads-up if an identity thief opens an account in your name. You can click “Credit Alerts” on the website to see a list of recent alerts, too.

Many banks and credit card companies are rolling out their own similar tools, like Chase’s Credit Journey and Capital One’s CreditWise. However, these services generally access a single credit reporting agency’s data. A combination of Credit Karma and FreeCreditScore.com gives you free access to all three reports.

Image Credit: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock.com

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »