NEW YORK - Millions of Americans are about to get free annual copies of their credit reports.
Starting Dec. 1, residents of Western states along with Alaska and Hawaii will be able to get free copies of the reports every year from the three major credit agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
People in the Midwest can begin ordering theirs March 1, while those in the South start June 1. Residents of Eastern states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories are last, starting Sept. 1.
The public’s access to free copies of their reports, which track the amount of debt consumers have and whether they pay their bills on time, was mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003.
The law, better known as the FACT Act, was designed to help Americans better monitor the reports that are used by banks and merchants to determine whether they’ll lend to a consumer, and at what interest rate.
Joel Winston, associate director of the financial practices division at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., said Congress had two main goals in passing the law.
‘‘The first was to help consumers spot identity theft,’’ Winston said. ‘‘The rationale was that the more consumers are familiar with their credit reports, the more they’re likely to spot things showing up related to ID theft.’’
The second, he said, was increasing complaints about inaccuracies in the reports.
‘‘There were concerns that errors could mean consumers would be denied credit, or would get it only at higher rates,’’ Winston said. ‘‘Getting their reports regularly should enhance consumers’ ability to find those errors and get them corrected.’’
In coordination with the FTC, the three credit bureaus have started a collaborative program to deliver the reports.
Consumers will be able to go to a single Web site, www.annualcreditreport.com, where they can request their reports online.
Or they’ll be able to call a toll-free number, (877) 322-8228. Or they can mail a request to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga., 30348-5281.
The reason the program is being launched region by region is that the credit reporting agencies have no way to gauge what public demand will be for the free reports, said Colleen Martin, spokeswoman for Trans Union LLC, which is based in Chicago.
In the past, only residents of a handful of states with special laws could get free credit reports.
In addition, consumers who were turned down for loans because of something negative in their reports also had free access.
Consumer advocates are urging Americans to take advantage of the new service. Some suggest consumers get all three bureau reports at once to check them for accuracy.
Others advocate getting one every four months so they can monitor changes over time.
Whichever strategy a consumer adopts, Liz Pulliam Weston, author of ‘‘Your Credit Score,’’ said checking a credit report is the best way to spot ID theft early and contain the damage.
And checking a report also should give families a place to start if they want to improve their credit scores, which are three-digit numbers that lenders use to set interest rates.
She suggests that consumers look for:
• Accounts that aren’t theirs.
• Any delinquencies that are still on the report after the 7-year time limit has passed.
• Notices of late payments that the consumer believes were on time.
• Multiple collection agency notices for a single debt.