Just as it's important to get an annual physical to make sure your body is healthy, it's also important to do an annual check on your credit report to make sure your credit history is in order. Thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) you can make sure your credit is in order without paying a dime.

Credit reports contain details about your financial history, such as how you pay your bills or whether you've filed for bankruptcy, but they also contain some personal information, such as where you live and if you've ever been sued or arrested. Businesses like credit card providers and mortgage lenders use a credit report to determine a person's credit worthiness.

Keeping an eye on the information in your credit report is important so that these businesses can make accurate decisions about your ability to repay money. It can also help you fight identity theft by making sure no one is trying to use your name or personal information to open fraudulent accounts.

While it might seem commonplace to be able to see what's on your credit report, that wasn't always the case. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, credit reporting agencies first came about in the late 1800s to create reports on individuals that they sold to businesses and insurers. The companies that bought these reports could then deny services or opportunities to individuals based on what was in those reports, yet individuals themselves weren't allowed to see their own reports.

By the 1960s, the credit reporting industry was experiencing a lot of abuse due to credit agencies requiring quotas of negative information, which investigators oftentimes fabricated. Credit agencies also collected and made decisions on individuals based on their marital status, sexual orientation and personal habits, even sharing these reports with law enforcement and other unauthorized entities.

The FCRA was passed in 1970 to regulate how private companies could use personal information, and it promotes the need for consumer reporting agencies to have accurate and fair data and protect individuals' privacy.

Today, one of the stipulations of the FCRA is that individuals have the right to obtain a free credit report from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Individuals can request these reports once every 12 months either through the Internet, by calling a toll-free phone number or via mail.

To order the reports through the Internet, visit Phone orders go through 877-322-8228. To order by mail, fill out the Annual Credit Report Request Form found at

When ordering free credit reports through the Internet, note that is the only website authorized to provide free annual credit reports the law provides for, and it won't send you e-mails asking you to provide more personal information. Other websites may offer "free" credit reports, but those sites aren't part of the federal program and may, in fact, get you to register for a fee-based service.

To get your free credit reports, you will have to provide some information, including your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth. If your residence has changed within the last two years, you may need to provide prior addresses as well. Each credit reporting bureau may ask you for additional information to prove that you are who you say you are.

If ordering reports online, you'll be able to receive them immediately. Phone orders take approximately 15 days to process. Likewise, mail orders will be sent within 15 days of receipt. Orders that require more personal information in order to verify your identity may take longer to process.

While you can order a report from each bureau all at the same time, you don't have to. You can opt to order reports throughout the year, but remember that you're only allowed one report per credit reporting agency every 12 months. Whether you want to have an annual financial physical, or regular "doctor's visits" is up to you, but it's a good idea to keep abreast of what's on your credit report to help you maintain good fiscal health.