How to Protect Your Credit and Your Privacy Series: PRIVACY IN THE COMPUTER AGE. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. Second of Two Articles Appearing Today

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1. The first step to protecting your credit record is to get a copy of it. If there is invalid information on the report, have it corrected.

If you have been denied credit within the last 30 days, the credit reporting agency is obligated under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to provide you with a free copy of your credit report. Otherwise, you will be required to pay $15. (In Maryland, the cost for the report is $5; in California, $8; and in Connecticut, $10.)

When requesting your report, be sure to include your name, address, previous addresses for the past five years, your Social Security number, your signature, and a telephone number where you can be reached during the day.

In addition to your credit history, the report will include the names of every business that has requested your report within the past two years. If you do not recognize any of the companies, someone may have obtained credit in your name.

Since each credit bureau maintains its own files, some may have errors that others do not. You should be sure to check with more than one bureau. The "big three" are: TRW P.O. Box 5450 Orange, CA 92613-5450 (714) 991-5100 Equifax 5505 Peachtree Dunwoody, Suite 600 Atlanta, GA 30358 (404) 250-4000 Trans Union Corporation Consumer Relations Dept. 208 S. Market Street P.O. Box 2926 Wichita, KS 67201 (312) 645-6008

If you disagree with anything on your report, contact the credit bureau. The FCRA requires the bureau to reinvestigate the facts in the dispute; if you do not agree with their conclusion, you have the right to include a statement in the report with your version.

There are also many local credit bureaus. Bankcard Holders of America, a nonprofit consumer-education group, publishes a "credit-check kit" that includes the name, address, and phone numbers of legitimate credit bureaus across the United States, as well as a pamphlet that explains in detail your rights under the FCRA. …