Google the term "credit report," and you'll face an overwhelming number of options, including claims that offer access to the "secrets" contained in your credit report "for free."
But can you really obtain free credit information? Actually, you can on these websites, but they have their limits.
AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the official government website for obtaining a free credit report each year. The report is based on data from each of the three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.
While AnnualCreditReport.com is a great resource, keep in mind you aren't entitled to a free credit score - you're simply accessing your credit report, which shows your credit history. Each bureau, however, offers a paid option to view your credit score.
Quizzle.com. While many websites offer a "summary" of the information on your Experian credit report, this website provides the full report. You can revisit your report once every six months without being charged, and enroll in a paid plan if you want more frequent access.
Quizzle also offers access to your CE score. Note that this is an independent consumer credit score - not your FICO score - and not what lenders use when deciding whether to approve a loan. However, your CE score can give you a general idea of your creditworthiness. In addition, Quizzle analyzes your credit situation and offers tips on how to improve it.
Monthly credit reports from Quizzle, however, require a paid subscription.
CreditKarma.com. If you want information from your TransUnion report, Credit Karma can help. The site summarizes information from the bureau's credit report. You also get access to your TransUnion New Account Score, but (like with Quizzle's CE score) this isn't the same as your FICO score.
Moreover, Credit Karma provides your Vantage Score, a model developed by the three major credit bureaus that also grades your credit from "A" to "F."
Credit Karma has a number of free tools to help you monitor your credit, and the site updates your TransUnion score regularly. One of the most useful features offered is the credit score simulator, which shows how certain behaviors can affect your credit score.
You will have to pay for an account upgrade if you want more in-depth analysis.
CreditSesame.com. Like Quizzle, Credit Sesame bases its service on information found in your Experian report. Yet unlike Quizzle, you are required to purchase a credit report for $9 if you want full access. However, you can get a summary of your credit situation, which includes your Experian National Equivalency Score, but that is not the exact score lenders use.
Credit Sesame also offers tips on how you can use certain products and services to reduce what you owe on credit cards and home loans.
FreeCreditScore.com. Given its name, it may sound like this website is a slam dunk. However, the free score offered is the Experian Plus Score, which isn't the one used by lenders to make decisions about your creditworthiness.
Also, when you sign up for your "free" credit score, you are required to provide a credit card number. (None of the other credit-scoring websites mentioned in this comparison require you to provide a credit card number unless you are upgrading.) After a seven-day free trial period, the website charges $14.95 a month for its credit monitoring service.
What about Equifax? The third major credit bureau doesn't offer a free credit score service. You can sign up for a free 14-day trial, but then must enroll in a paid plan to access your Equifax information. You won't find the information on your Equifax report floating around for free - unless you access it through AnnualCreditReport.com.
The bottom line. Use AnnualCreditReport.com to check your credit report once a year. You can then supplement that report with information from a free credit scoring and monitoring website. While you won't be able to access your FICO score for free, Quizzle, Credit Karma and Credit Sesame can give you a general idea of what direction you're headed, as well as what actions you can take to improve your credit.
Miranda Marquit is a freelance contributor to several investing and personal finance websites. She also writes for her own blog, Planting Money Seeds.