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Free online credit reports begin Wednesday

Consumers in Western states can grab free credit reports online, as leading agencies comply with new federal law.

Consumers in 13 Western states will be able to grab free online copies of their credit reports starting Wednesday, as a new federal law is phased in.

Under the terms of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, passed last year, and amid growing concerns over privacy and disclosure of sensitive financial data, the three leading credit reporting agencies must provide consumers with a free summary once a year of all credit information on file for that person.

Those agencies--Equifax, Experian and TransUnion--have launched AnnualCreditReport.com to streamline the process of obtaining reports. For security reasons, people can only access the Web site directly, not through a referred link.

Consumers using the site fill out an online form with a Social Security number, followed by answers to several personal questions, such as the balance on a certain credit card, meant to verify the respondent's identity.

Once identity is established, the consumer is sent to a secure Web page with a full copy of the credit report from the requested agencies. The recipient can print out the report from a Web browser, but the report can't be downloaded or saved to the PC.

Paper copies of credit reports also are available to those who make a request by phone or mail, but delivery can take two weeks or more.

Compliance with the credit act is being phased in regionally. Consumers in Western states, including California, can retrieve reports starting Wednesday. Residents of Midwestern states gain access to the service March 1, followed by Southern states June 1 and the rest of the country Sept. 1.

Monitoring of credit reports has become increasingly important to consumers as phishing attacks and other identity theft schemes have increasingly put personal data at risk.