Credit information that's really, 100% free

Most offers for “free” financial information come with strings attached. Usually that means automatic enrollment in some sort of ongoing service. That’s why they want your credit card number. This disclaimer is normally tucked in the fine print, so it’s easy to miss. 

The following free offers are truly free — with no hidden charges or fees. 

Free credit monitoring

Millions of Americans spend $100 or more a year for credit monitoring to guard against possible identity theft. 

This week, Credit Karma becomes the first company to offer free credit monitoring. Sign up for the service and they’ll check your TransUnion credit file once a day. If there’s any significant change in your account — a late payment, new accounts opened or credit inquiry — you’ll be notified via e-mail. 

“We’re not going to sell your data. We’re not going to spam you. And we’re not going to charge you,” says Credit Karma CEO and founder Kenneth Lin. “We don’t even ask for a credit card number. It’s completely free.” 

But the site may use your registration profile to match you with offers from its marketing partners, either via e-mail (if you opt-in for that) or through display ads. These other companies do not see your credit score or credit file. 

All you need to provide to take advantage of this offer is your name, address and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Lin says this works for 90 percent of the time. If not, you will need to supply your full SSN to use the service. 

Clearly, this not the same protection as you’d get from a company that monitors all three credit bureaus every day. But for those who want a little extra protection without paying for it, this may be the way to go. 

Free credit score

Want to know your score without paying? You can also get that for free from Credit Karma and a site called Credit Sesame.  Credit Karma gets its score from TransUnion. Credit Sesame uses Experian. 

“It’s not your FICO score, but it’s a darn good replica and it doesn’t cost you a dime,” says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Smart Credit.com.  And he should know. Ulzheimer used to work for the Fair Isaac Corporation, the inventors of the FICO credit scoring system. 

If you’re in the market to buy a home, finance a car or apply for a new credit card, you probably should buy your score from FICO because that is the score most lenders use. But if you’re just curious about where you stand, the Credit Sesame or Credit Karma scores are good alternatives. 

My two cents

I tried both sites and I like Credit Karma better. You only need to type in the last four digits of your Social Security number. At Credit Sesame you need to provide the entire number. You also need to answer a few marketing questions and provide your annual household income. I didn’t like that. 

Note: Federal regulations require a lender to tell you the credit score used if that lender rejects a loan application or offers you a credit card with an interest rate that’s higher than the best rate available. 

Free credit report

Under federal law, you have the right to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the big three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Here’s how to do that. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com, the onlysource authorized by the federal government to provide this service.  If you wind up on a site that asks for your credit card number, you’re on the wrong one. 

More information 

Federal Trade Commission: Free annual credit reports