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Consumers gained significant ground as of Oct. 1 thanks to changes in the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The rules, which govern the collection and use of information about your financial life, provide consumers with more power than ever before when it comes to release of information from your credit file. The recent revisions also make it easier for consumers to make corrections to their credit reports.

"Few laws have as significant an impact on American consumers as the Fair Credit Reporting Act," said Donald Elder, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, the agency which enforces the new act.

"The amendments benefit consumers by strengthening privacy provisions and defining more clearly the responsibilities and liabilities of business that provide information to, and access data from, credit reporting agencies," Elder added.

Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs) are the companies that gather and sell information about you and your financial history to banks, employers and insurers. Their files include such details as where you've lived and for how long, your bill and loan payment history, and whether you've filed for bankruptcy.

With the exception of bankruptcies, information can be retained in your file for up to seven years. In the case of bankruptcies, details remain a live part of your credit history for 10 years.

Considering how long information stays in those credit dossiers, it is absolutely critical to your credit future that everything in the file is accurate.

Also consider the potential for error when huge CRAs, like Experian (formerly TRW) and Equifax, issue more than a half billion credit reports annually on individuals.

From 1990 to 1993, the Federal Trade Commission received more complaints about credit-reporting agencies (some 10,000 in 1996) than any other industry. Horror stories abound of individuals being denied a home mortgage or a job because of an inaccurate credit report.

Many of the mistakes seem innocent enough on their face: misspelled
names, wrong addresses and incorrect dates. Unfortunately, something as simple as an incorrect spelling or middle initial, can lead to a mix-up in identities.

At worst, you could find your pristine credit history replaced by that of a financial deadbeat with a similar name. And to make matters worse, these horrible discoveries are made when applying for a car loan, mortgage or during an employment-related credit check.

With the new credit-reporting rules now working in your favor, there's no time like the present to get copies of your credit reports.

Here's a look at your expanded rights under the revised guidelines:

Information providers (banks, landlords, employers, etc.), as well as CRAs, must correct inaccurate or incomplete information in a consumer's report within 30 days.

Employers must get a consumer's written authorization before obtaining a copy of their credit report.

To get a copy of a consumer's report that contains medical information, the consumer's prior approval is required.

Consumers can stop agencies from including their name and address on prescreened lists of unsolicited credit and insurance offers.

Consumers are entitled to a free copy of their report if they can prove that they're unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days, that they are on welfare, or that the report is inaccurate due to fraud. All others can obtain a report for a cost not exceeding $8.

Consumers have a right to know who has requested a copy of their report in the past 12 months, or in the past 24 months if it was was related to any employment purpose.

Consumers also have the right to sue CRAs, providers of credit information and users of data if they have violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act in the compilation or dissemination of information.

The first step to reviewing the state of your credit file is to contact each of the three largest CRAs. (Equifax: 1-800-685-1111; Experian -- formerly TRW --: 1-800-682-7654; Trans Union: 1-800-916-8800).

Don't assume that just because one file is accurate, all agencies are as perfect.

For more detailed information on consumer rights of the revamped act, or for specific information on employer and insurer requirements, contact the FTC at (202)-326-2222, or write to the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 6th and Pennsylvania, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. Request the updated brochure entitled "Fair Credit Reporting."

The information can also be accessed via the FTC's website on the World Wide Web at Click on the "Consumer Protection" icon for quick access.

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