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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.

Image: iStock

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  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    David Blumberg of TransUnion said that the answer can vary, but in general it’s about 24 hours.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Wendy –

    Are you trying to get your free annual credit reports? If so there is an address you can write to if you are having trouble requesting it online. It’s hard to say why you’re having trouble getting it online – but at least you know no one else can either! You’ll find the info on how to request one in writing here: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/specialSituation.action

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I think it’s worth investigating. I’d suggest you go through the manual process with Equifax. I’d love to hear what happens.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I know it’s frustrating. Just hard to say what the issue is Hopefully when you see your report you’ll be able to figure out what the problem is.

    • http://myanimelist.net/animelist/Up_Side_Down Nu-Goldstein

      My questions said that I have taken a mortgage loan before and wanted me to tell how much I used to pay monthly. WTF is going on. I am scare. None of the above is an incorrect answer by the way.

      • http://blog.credit.com/ Kali Geldis

        Hi Nu —

        The questions you’re asked when you sign up for Credit.com are used to verify your identity — there are some questions that are kind of like “trick questions” where the answer can be “none of the above” — they’re in there to ensure that no one but you can access your credit information! Hope this answer helps!

        • wendygoerl

          I agree with Nu; it seems that “none of the above” gets you failed–even if it’s the correct answer.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I know it’s frustrating. Just hard to say what the issue is Hopefully when you see your report you’ll be able to figure out what the problem is.

  • mel

    I’ve been trying to get a copy of my credit report online and it says unable to process the request because I answered the questions wrong. But, I know that I answered them right. It asked about me taking out loans, etc, and I’ve never taken out any loans. I called Trans union and they were completely useless and no help at all. So now I feel helpless. I assume this means for sure that there is fraudulent activity on my account if they think I have loans. All I can do is mail in some form? And then what? This is so frustrating and unfair. Everyone I talk to on the phone is so hard to understand and talks to me like a robot and doesn’t answer any of my questions. What am I supposed to do?

  • Ran-Cid

    I’m way late to this discussion. But I haven’t been able to get two of three reports. I started taking screenshots of verification questions. I’m perplexed. Also, not only have I been asked to send in my SS number, but a photocopy of it, along with a photocopy of my drivers license and a recent utility bill. ! I absoluely refused to do that.

  • J.S.

    Very helpful article. The problem though is with the credit reporting agencies NEVER FIXING ISSUES. I have the same problem that several others here have, an online test that asks questions that do not apply to me in any way. I’m not a woman, and I didn’t get a loan in 2014. So you can never answer the questions…plus you’re bumped off when you choose ‘None of the above’. And it’s insidious…for instance, I need/want to change some SSA info online so I tried to sign up for an account…and they ask credit questions they got from the credit agencies I can’t answer because they don’t belong on my credit report.

    The 20/20 TV program did an expose’ of these agencies and tested them in various ways and they all failed miserably. Never fixing mistakes in recorded data…ever…even after repeated requests, not changing anything, or changing something but the change is wrong…until they are finally sued. And then they are vindictive.

    They need to be put out of business. And the only way that will happen is if we consumers complain loudly to the credit reporting agencies. If they are unresponsive, then to our congresspeople, also send complaints to the FTC, and the US Attorney General if you’ve been financially harmed. This incompetency of theirs needs to be stopped and it appears the only way that will happen is if they are sued out of business.

  • J.S.

    Very helpful article. The problem though is with the credit reporting agencies NEVER FIXING ISSUES. I have the same problem that several others here have, an online test that asks questions that do not apply to me in any way. I’m not a woman, and I didn’t get a loan in 2014. So you can never answer the questions…plus you’re bumped off when you choose ‘None of the above’. And it’s insidious…for instance, I need/want to change some SSA info online so I tried to sign up for an account…and they ask credit questions they got from the credit agencies I can’t answer because they don’t belong on my credit report.

    The 20/20 TV program did an expose’ of these agencies and tested them in various ways and they all failed miserably. Never fixing mistakes in recorded data…ever…even after repeated requests, not changing anything, or changing something but the change is wrong…until they are finally sued. And then they are vindictive.

    They need to be put out of business. And the only way that will happen is if we consumers complain loudly to the credit reporting agencies. If they are unresponsive, then to our congresspeople, also send complaints to the FTC, and the US Attorney General if you’ve been financially harmed. This incompetency of theirs needs to be stopped and it appears the only way that will happen is if they are sued out of business.

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