If you’re an American serving outside the United States, don’t plan on going online to get your congressionally mandated free yearly credit report.

When you visit, you’ll get the following message: “The Web site is only accessible through ISPs (Internet Service Providers) located within the United States and its territories.”

While the situation does create an inconvenience for Americans overseas, the restrictions are valuable because most of the incursions for identification theft and fraud come from foreign IP addresses, said Norm Magnuson, a spokesman with the trade association for the consumer reporting industry.

“We’re trying to provide that security blanket so their information doesn’t go floating out into the ether and get captured in eastern Europe or Africa — where there is a prevalence of ID theft and organized rings,” he said.

The Consumer Data Industry Association has received a list of some foreign IP addresses from the Department of Defense that are allowed to access the Web site, Magnuson said. But what are other responsible American consumers serving overseas to do?

Being denied access to your free yearly credit report via the Internet isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to one financial expert. While the Internet is convenient, submitting information online could expose you to hackers. In a bizarre way, attempting to prevent identity theft by checking your credit report online could make you more susceptible to identity theft.

Roy Bolton, a financial management counselor with Army Community Services in Kaiserslautern, Germany, does not recommend using the Internet to check your credit report.

“If you put your credit report online, everything you’ve got is in that report,” he said. “Now, they have everything. How much more access, how much more damage can they do to you?”

Two alternatives exist: A toll-free number and a snail-mail address where you can order your free yearly credit report. However, that number is not toll-free if called from outside the United States. Bolton recommends requesting your credit report by mail.

Once the request is received, your credit report will be mailed within 15 days.

Delays in getting your free credit report may crop up when nationwide consumer reporting companies need more information to verify your identity or when the companies experience a high volume of requests for credit reports.

“If that happens, you may be asked to re-submit your request,” according to a Federal Trade Commission Web site. “Or, you may be told that your report will be mailed to you sometime after 15 days from your request. If either of these events occurs, the nationwide consumer reporting companies will let you know.”

So why is it important to keep tabs on your credit report and score? Your history of how you handle debt and the score derived from that is used by businesses to determine whether they will approve you for loans. A credit score driven lower by identity theft could make it harder for you to get loans approved for major purchases.

“One, you want to make sure that businesses are reporting you accurately,” Bolton said.

“The second part of it is identity theft. By checking it, you’ll know if something’s on there that’s not yours. You’ve got to stay on top of it. If you’re not checking your credit report, you leave yourself wide open.”

Order your free credit report

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months, according to a Federal Trade Commission Web site.

To order your free annual credit report, call 1-877-322-8228 or download a request form at: include/requestformfinal.pdf. Complete the form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga., 30348-5281.

— Steve Mraz

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