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Free credit reports now availablemortgagepress.comcredit maintenance, consumer demand, fraud As of Dec. 1, residents of western states along with Alaska and Hawaii are able to receive free copies of their credit reports every year from the three major credit agencies--Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. People in the Midwest can begin ordering theirs as of March 1, while those in the South start June 1. Residents of eastern states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories are last, starting Sept. 1. Chicago-based TransUnion LLC spokeswoman Colleen Martin said that the reason the program is being launched region by region is that the credit reporting agencies have no way to gauge what public demand will be for the free reports. "That's the great unknown," she said. "We want to ensure that all consumers have the best possible experience, so we want to make sure we have the proper scale built up." The public's access to free copies of their reports was mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. The law, better known as the FACT Act, was designed to help Americans better monitor the reports that are used by banks and merchants to determine if they'll lend to a consumer and at what interest rate. Joel Winston, associate director of the financial practices division at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., said Congress had two main goals in passing the law. "The first was to help consumers spot identity theft," Winston said. "The rationale was that the more consumers are familiar with their credit reports, the more they're likely to spot things showing up related to identity theft." The second, he said, was increasing complaints about inaccuracies in the reports. "There were concerns that errors could mean consumers would be denied credit or would get it only at higher rates," Winston said. "Getting their reports regularly should enhance consumers' ability to find those errors and get them corrected." In coordination with the FTC, the three credit bureaus have started a collaborative program to deliver the reports. Consumers will be able to request their reports online at www.annualcreditreport.com or call a toll-free number, (877) 322-8228, to request a report. They can also mail a request to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga., 30348-5281. In the past, only residents of a handful of states with special laws could get free credit reports. In addition, consumers who were turned down for loans because of something negative in their reports also had free access. Consumer advocates are urging Americans to take advantage of the new service. Some suggest consumers get all three bureau reports at once to check them for accuracy. Others advocate getting one every four months so they can monitor changes over time. For more information, visit www.annualcreditreport.com.