After well-publicized, far-reaching data breaches at the health care company Anthem Inc. earlier this year and at the retailer Target last year, the need to keep an eye on your credit has never been more clear.
Vendors, ever innovative, have noticed as well and have stepped in to fill the need created by folks looking to monitor their credit — at a price; credit monitoring services can cost hundreds of dollars per year. Of course, such services have a ready-made sales pitch — watching your credit ruined and not fixing it in time can easily cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in the long run.
Still, they beg the question: Is there a way to get the peace of mind that comes with credit monitoring without having to spend too much on it?
Why yes, here are the steps that I use to do it for free:
Free credit reports at Annual Credit Report
Before moving along, a quick note explaining what I’m hoping to catch by monitoring my credit:
- Accounts that have mistakenly gone into collections or that mistakenly report a missed payment, potentially lowering my credit score
- Charges I don’t recognize on my existing cards, potentially indicating that one of my credit cards has been stolen
- New credit that I don’t recognize, potentially indicating that my identity has been stolen
Because it’s harder to fix a problem when it’s been on my credit report for a while and because I could stand to lose a lot of money if I don’t know that new credit’s been opened in my name, it’s important to check out what’s on my credit report regularly.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell once said that there ain’t nothing like the real thing (baby) and as good as some of the sites are that I’ll mention later, there’s no perfect substitute for pulling your credit report directly from the credit bureaus.
Luckily, thanks to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, those three credit bureaus Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are required by law to provide one free, full credit report to consumers every 12 months.
Because each of the credit bureaus have their own methods for collecting and keeping data, it’s important to check each one. To make the most of these three free credit reports — available at AnnualCreditReport.com — I stagger them across the year by checking just one every four months.
Sign up for Credit Karma
A number of free websites work with the three credit bureaus to provide periodic updates of some or all of the information in my credit file.
The leader of the pack among these is Credit Karma, which gives me access to full reports both from Equifax and TransUnion on a monthly and weekly basis, respectively.
I also find their web interface the most user-friendly toward understanding what all of that information means and their customizable alerts are helpful without being annoying.
Sign up for
Credit Sesame or Credit.com
Graphically, you can see that all I’d need to complete my monthly monitoring would be a free website that provides access to the data in my Experian credit file.
Credit Sesame and Credit.com are two options is the sole remaining option for this access. Both They update their data monthly so there’s no huge reason to pick one over the other, but I go with Credit Sesame. [thanks to Joe, Mike, and Natlie for the heads up -Ed.]
Update: It would appear that Credit Sesame now receives credit score and credit report information from TransUnion
— Credit.com Experts (@CreditExperts) April 14, 2015
Sign up for Mint
Mint is an aggregator that lets me keep track of balances and transactions associated with — among many other things — my credit card accounts. By using Mint, I’m able to tell immediately if one of my credit cards has been stolen either by manually checking for new transactions across all my accounts or by receiving an alert when a big transaction takes place. As an extra bonus, Mint also provides a report of the data in my Equifax credit file, updated every 90 days. Also, there are other free credit monitoring websites you can sign up for, which I’ll tabulate here for the sake of completion: By using these free websites, I’m able to monitor my credit reports at all three of the credit bureaus without spending anything. Who else has tips for keeping track of your credit?