Consumers are entitled to a free copy of their annual credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies, as mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act.
As with many things, the Internet simplifies this process, and the bureaus tend to encourage consumers to use the online platform, rather than call or mail in a request.
It’s pretty painless: Go to AnnualCreditReport.com, make a few clicks, enter your information, answer some security questions and boom — you have your free credit report, one of the best ways to monitor your credit.
But it’s not always that simple. Every once in a while, a person’s identity can’t be sufficiently verified by the security questions, or a fraud alert or credit file freeze could also occasionally impede online delivery — and the website will tell them they have to mail in proper documentation to obtain their credit report.
Shortcomings of Internet Security
When it comes to the security questions the online system uses to verify your identity, the point is to make sure your sensitive information doesn’t get into the wrong hands. However, sometimes a consumer can’t remember how much an old mortgage cost, or maybe it seems like there are two possible answers to the multiple choice question. So instead of the quick checkup on the Web, a person has to send his or her personal information — including a Social Security number — in the mail and wait several days for the report to come back.
Not everyone is crazy about sticking their Social Security number in an envelope, slapping a stamp on it and mailing it across the country.
“The tricky thing is that balancing act,” said Norm Magnuson, vice president of public affairs for the Consumer Data Industry Association. It’s the trade association that counts among its members Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, the three major credit reporting bureaus that furnish reports through AnnualCreditReport.com. Magnuson described the difficulty with security questions: “You want to make it difficult enough so that not everyone can guess what it might be, but you also want it to be easy enough that people can answer.”
The Cost of ‘Free’
Getting the security questions wrong is most likely why someone would be denied online access to a credit report. Each bureau has different standards for what constitutes “passing” the security test, but the process following a failed quiz is the same: send your information in the mail with some identity-verifying documents, and you’ll get a credit report. (Though consumers can make an initial request via phone, it’s not an option after a failed attempt online.)
But what about the cost of mailing your information? Sure, a stamp only costs 46 cents (for now), but that’s not the most secure way to send your Social Security number to a credit bureau.
“We recommend you send certified mail when you do send information to us,” said Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian. Certified mail is a service of the U.S. Postal Service that requires a signature to be delivered. It costs $3.10.
USPS Senior Public Relations Representative Darleen Reid said registered mail is the most secure way to send something. That starts at $11.20, but she also recommended sending certified mail and adding a return receipt (record of the delivery) for an additional dollar or two.
Though the report itself costs nothing, it takes a little money to request it. That’s the price of security, though it could be frustrating for someone legitimately trying to obtain his or her credit report, only to be denied online access because of an honest mistake.
“Consumers aren’t required to send their request by certified mail, so they don’t have to pay for special shipping,” Griffin said. “We encourage people to request their credit report online, and for the vast majority of people there is no problem in delivering the report. We only request that they write and provide identifying documents when we cannot sufficiently verify the individual’s identity. The reason for doing so is to protect them from fraud.”
Identifying documents are things like tax forms, pay stubs, a copy of a driver’s license — there are a variety of options.
“You can choose the ones that you’re most comfortable sending,” said Demitra Wilson, senior director of public relations for Equifax. She also recommended sending information by certified mail.
In a culture where instant access to online information is expected of most services, “snail mail” can be a pain, but the added effort doesn’t outweigh the importance of monitoring your credit. Pulling your credit reports should be done in addition to checking your credit score regularly, as changes in your score can alert you to potential problems. There are services that allow you to monitor your credit score for free, and Credit.com provides a tool that gives you your credit score as well as your credit profile.
Paying a few dollars for extra precautions when sending your information is worth it if it helps you avoid identity theft. If you’re constantly denied online access to your annual credit report, make sure you’re checking your reports closely for incorrect information, and reach out to the bureaus for customer service.