Know the score

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Thomasine Wilson went to a payday lender to avoid dinging her credit. She was saving to purchase a home. Most payday lenders operate independent of credit reports, but your ability to borrow money from more conventional lenders depends on your credit score.

Thanks to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 [PDF], you’re guaranteed one free credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus every 12 months. And if you’re not checking your credit reports, you should be. Aside from knowing your credit before you apply for a loan or make a big purchase, it’s a good way to guard against identity theft.

There’s only one place to get your free annual credit report. But there are lots of impostors.

There are three main credit bureaus that report on your credit: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. These are the companies that lenders and businesses are checking when you apply for credit. Your credit report contains the information that will affect whether you get a loan or line of credit and how much it’s going to cost you to borrow that money.

While you’re entitled to one free report a year from each bureau, the process of getting these reports is a little murkier than it should be. The federal government authorizes only one place to get your report— Unfortunately, there are a lot of impostor sites.

Other websites, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), claim to offer free “credit reports,” “credit scores” or “credit monitoring.” Many times they will set up cyber shop just a mistyped letter away from in hopes that a typo will redirect unsuspecting customers their way. Be careful, the FTC warns. Some of these “free” products come with strings attached, ask you to give them credit card information or collect your personal information.

You can also request your credit report over the phone by calling 1-877-322-8228. If both of those options make you uneasy, you’re also able to request a report by mail by going to the website and downloading a printable request form.