NEW YORK -- Now that it will be easier to find your free credit report, you might be curious about who else can see it and how it can be used.
Starting today, a new Federal Trade Commission rule will require Web sites advertising free reports to direct consumers to the government-approved www.annualcreditreport.com. TV and radio ads must do the same starting Sept. 1.
The problem is that these ads typically don't disclose that the advertised free reports are part of a package of services that can cost as much as $14.95 a month. Consumers may not realize they can get free reports with no strings attached.
Once a report is in hand, however, it raises a slew of other questions. Here's what you need to know about credit reports and scores.
Freebies: Let's start by clarifying when you can get free credit reports.
You are entitled to a free copy every year from each of the credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Off the bat, that means you get three free reports a year.
On top of that, you can request free reports if you're the victim of identity fraud or if you're unemployed and looking for work.
You also are entitled to free copies if you think your report has errors or if it ever has been used against you.
Reports from the three agencies should contain pretty much the same information, but differences can arise when lenders don't provide data to all three.
And despite the official-sounding names, credit reporting agencies, also known as credit bureaus, are for-profit companies.
Who's entitled? Only banks, debt collectors, landlords or those with a valid interest can pull credit reports.
"Curiosity is not a permissible purpose," said Rebecca Kuehn of the Federal Trade Commission. "You can't just pull a report, not even on your husband."
Prospective employers also need to get written consent to run checks on job applicants. Hawaii and Washington ban the practice in most cases, however, and lawmakers in about a dozen states are debating whether to do the same.
Credit checks typically are used only for filling positions with access to sensitive financial information, said Mike Aitken of the Society for Human Resource Management.
What's the score? By now, most people understand that credit reports are the foundation for credit scores. What you might not realize is that a person can have multiple scores.
A company called FICO develops the most widely used scores, but they're not the only ones on the market. VantageScore has gained popularity, and all three credit bureaus now sell both to lenders.
The version you'll get depends on the credit bureau you go to.
TransUnion sells both to consumers. Equifax sells only FICO scores, which range from 350 to 850. Experian sells VantageScores, which range from 501 to 990.
Then there are so-called educational scores, such as Experian's PLUS score. These are sometimes called "Fako" scores because they're sold to consumers, but lenders don't use them.
Keep in mind that the basis for any credit score is a credit report. So one score should give you a good idea of where you stand with the others.
Credit scores aren't free, however. You can buy them from a credit bureau or from MyFico.com for $15.95.
Other records: Credit reports are the most widely known, but they are not the only information available on consumers.
For example, banks and lenders are increasingly running additional checks on loan applicants, said Teresa Grove, a spokeswoman for Kroll Factual Data, a screening company.
Other consumer reports provide records on check fraud, driving violations and rental histories. As long as there's a valid interest -- for example a landlord who wants to check an applicant's rental records -- your permission isn't needed for those reports to be pulled.
Prospective employers, however, need permission to obtain any type of consumer report on a job applicant.
As with credit reports, companies are required to disclose if a consumer report was the basis for denying you a job, loan or other service.
And if so, you are entitled to a free copy of that report.