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Everyone loves a freebie, so residents of seven states may be happy to know that state law grants them a free extra copy of their credit report every 12 months.

That's one from each of the three major credit bureaus, in addition to the one that federal law promises to all citizens every 12 months. That works out to six free credit reports a year for residents of Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont.

Most residents of those states don't know about that extra report, though, and the big credit bureaus don't exactly advertise it. Getting them takes some legwork, but experts say it's worth the effort: More-frequent peeks at your credit report can mean better financial health. You can see what you're doing right and wrong -- and scrub any errors -- faster.

Important but little-known rule

Federal law guarantees every consumer the right to one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- every 12 months. That right comes from the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (better known as the FACT Act), which became law in 2003 as an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Overall awareness of credit-report availability is rising, thanks to the recession. Nationwide, awareness jumped to 53% in November 2010 from 37% in July 2010, according to Freescore.com, a Norwalk, Conn., for-profit credit information site.

But in the seven "extra credit report" states, word about the additional report doesn't seem to have gotten out. A call to the Colorado Attorney General's Office, for instance, yielded this admission: "Nobody knows anything about the law other than that it exists," from Mike Saccone, the office's communications director.

How to get them

Getting that extra credit report isn't as easy as getting your first one, however. Your initial free report should come from AnnualCreditReport.com, the official government-mandated site for obtaining free credit reports. A few clicks on that site and you're set in just a few minutes. The second one isn't so simple.

Residents of the seven states that allow extra free reports must contact the three major credit bureaus to request their reports. Each bureau features a different process:

  • Equifax: Visit www.Equifax.com/fcra. After filling out the name, address and Social Security number fields, check "Free State Credit File (not denied)" under the "Reason for Credit File Request" header.
  • Experian: The "Check Credit Report" page on Experian.com requests that consumers call (866) 200-6020 to confirm their eligibility and to request their extra free credit report via snail mail. The automated phone system uses the caller's area code to identify the location, then provides options based on where the person is calling from.
  • TransUnion: Visit TransUnion's "Learn More About Getting Your FACT Act Free Credit Report" page. On that page, click the link that says, "Learn more about obtaining a free credit report if you meet one of the above conditions." On the next page, click "Yes, I am eligible" next to option No. 4. You'll then be taken to a page where you can select your state of residence so you can get your free report.

Credit reports requested online are available immediately and are encrypted for security reasons, says Rod Griffin, the director of public education for Experian, based in Costa Mesa, Calif. Reports requested by telephone take about seven to 10 days to reach consumers by mail. Mailed reports do not include information that would be dangerous in the wrong hands, such as the consumer's entire Social Security number.

Why it matters

After a few costly experiences with look-alike websites, Donna Trimarco, a resident of Lumberton, N.J., got a free report following a financial services seminar at Fort Dix, N.J., where she is an administrative assistant.

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The report revealed a few surprises, including a lien on her house. Still, Trimarco said she was glad to have the information, adding that she needs a new car and wants to get a student loan to finish her master's degree.

She admits to a checkered financial past, including a bankruptcy, but hopes that regular review of her credit report will help her plan a rosier future. "If I keep my act together, it means looking at everything, each credit report," Trimarco says.

Indeed, experts advise obtaining as many free reports as are due you, and timing them to arrive regularly. Taren Coleman, the president of Coleman Financial Group, a financial adviser in Bethesda, Md., recommends that clients obtain reports at least once a quarter. Consumers are better able to spot, and correct, mistakes if they review their reports often, says Coleman.

Coleman also advises thinking ahead. For instance, if you plan to purchase a house or car, or want to refinance your home, study your credit report before the bank does. The advantage? "No surprises, no errors," Coleman says.

This article was reported by Lisa Bertagnoli for CreditCards.com.