December 1 is the first day for consumers to avail themselves of their new right to get a copy of their free credit report from each of the three national credit reporting bureaus. But, if you live outside the 12 most western U.S. states, don�t break an ankle getting to your computer. Your accessibility to these reports is being phased in regionally, and it may be nine months before you can get in line. The next region, the Midwest, will gain access on March 1, 2005, followed by the South on June 1, and finally the Eastern states and U.S. territories on September 1.

Credit reports were, for many years, simply unavailable to consumers. In the late 1980s I was actually told by a credit bureau employee that it was �illegal� for me to see my own credit report. I doubted that, but it was an indication of the zeal with which the holders of this information guarded their product. With the advent of the Internet, it became much harder for them to keep a lid on information and they began to sell reports for a nominal fee. In the meantime Congress mandated that persons denied credit had to be provided a copy of the report on which that denial was based.

Free access to these reports comes as a result of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act signed by President Bush a year ago. This act requires Equifax,, Trans Union, and Experian, the three nationwide credit bureaus, to set up a single source through which consumers can request a copy of a credit report from each bureau once every 12 months. That source,, became officially active today.

Consumers can request copies of all three of their credit reports at one time or spread the requests out over a year. The later is recommended by consumer advocates and the credit reporting agencies themselves. If a consumer staggers orders among the three companies � one every four months � it allows for nearly constant monitoring for identity theft or credit bureau mistakes (more common that you want to know.) Frequent checking also provides a check on whether requested corrections to earlier errors have been implemented.

The site is simple and appears to be easy to use (living outside of the 12 authorized states, it was not possible to give it a test drive.) The required information is similar to that needed when applying for a credit card.

The new law, however, does not give you free access to your credit score. This golden number, which is used more and more by lenders as a shortcut to assess credit worthiness, is available from all three services, for a price. Equifax will provide your FICO score (the most frequently used credit score) for $6.95; the other two bureaus will sell their in-house scores for $4.00 each.

Free Credit reports can also be requested by calling 877 322-8228, or writing Annual Credit Report Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.