Credit reports are a great way to stay on top of what's being recorded about you, but they're not all created equal, and they're not all free for the taking.

The last thing you need during an economic downturn is to have your credit card information compromised. If you've got debt already, why let somebody else add to it with your stolen identity?

Credit reports are a great way to stay on top of what's being recorded about you, but they're not all created equal, and they're not all free for the taking.

The three reporting companies that collect consumer credit information nationwide -Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - sell it to creditors, employers and other businesses. They use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment or renting a home, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

You can access your own credit report a number of ways, but as the FTC's website warns, AnnualCreditReport.com is the only credit report site authorized by federal law to give you that information for free. While many companies claims to offer free reports, you may be charged hidden or not-so-hidden fees.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the consumer reporting companies to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. Together, they've set up the one central website, a toll-free phone number and a mailing address through which you can request one from each company, no purchase necessary.

The FTC suggests taking care when typing in the URL, to avoid sites that are banking on your missed keystroke. Some use terms like "free report" in their names; others have URLs with intentional misspellings of AnnualCreditReport.com.

Some of these imposter sites direct you to other sites that try to sell you something or collect your personal information.

If you're fearful someone has stolen your personal or financial information, there is another option available: the credit monitoring services available through the three major reporting companies. Although a fee will apply, they are seemingly upfront about it.

TransUnion offers $14.95-a-month access to all three of your credit reports, monitoring, ID theft insurance and more. Experian matches that price with a monthly membership in their Triple Advantage program; it gives you a credit report, credit score and daily monitoring. Equifax also offers a $14.95-per-month credit report and monitoring service, along with ID theft insurance and more.

However, according to Consumer Reports, neither the FTC nor other consumer groups recommend or endorse credit monitoring services.

Consumer Reports writes, if something's amiss, "a security freeze should stop the opening of fraudulent new accounts, negating any need for ongoing monitoring. You can monitor suspicious activity on your existing credit and bank accounts by signing up for online access and checking them daily or weekly."

If you're considering a paid service, ask questions. Find out how much information they collect and how frequently it's updated. If you do your own monitoring, stay vigilant. Like it or not, your credit says a lot about you, so it's good to know exactly what it's saying.