How to get free credit reports, scores

The start of the new year is the perfect time to make sure your financial house is in order.

If you know where to go, you can get a lot of the information you need for free. There are all sorts of offers on the Internet for free credit reports and free credit scores. But in most cases, there are strings attached.

To get that information, you need to buy some sort of service, whether you realize it or not. That's why they want your credit card number when you sign up.

Here are three free offers that are totally free with no hidden charges. Let's start with your free credit report.

Under federal law, you have the right to see your credit report every 12 months from each of the big three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Go to the site, the only source authorized by the federal government to provide this free service. If you wind up on a site that asks for your credit card number, you're on the wrong one.

When you get that report, look for anything that's doesn't seem right, maybe an account you didn't open. This is one of the best ways to spot identity theft.

Next: a truly free credit score.

Two sites offer this information. One is called Credit Karma, which gets its information from TransUnion. The other is Credit Sesame, which uses Experian.

This isn't your FICO score, which is used by most lenders to approve or deny credit. But it will give you a good idea where you stand.

If your score seems a lot lower than it should be, you need to find out why.

I tried both sites and I like Credit Karma better, because you only need to give them the last four digits of your social security number and you don't need to say how much money you make.

Finally, as of this week, free credit monitoring is now available through the Credit Karma site. 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, you'll be notified via e-mail. All you need to do is provide your name, address and the last four digits of your social security number. This will work 90 percent of the time.

Credit Karma promises not to sell your data, but they may use your registration profile to match you with offers from its marketing partners.

Clearly, this not the same protection you'd get from a company that monitors all three credit bureaus every day. But it's better than nothing, and it's free.