To avoid the potential for online fraud altogether, order the reports from Annualcreditreport.com by phone (877-322-8228) or mail by printing out the request form and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
And since fraud can occur at any time of the year, consider spacing out your orders from the different credit companies at four-month intervals. While errors won't necessarily appear on all of your reports, checking one report every four months minimizes your risks that your credit is being trashed without your knowledge.
Once you have your report in hand, check it closely for any mistakes. The report's format will vary among the companies, but, in general, the information falls under one of four categories: personal information, a summary of your different accounts, inquiries and negative items. While mistakes in your personal information can cause problems, the biggest hits to your credit score come from errors in the accounts summary and negative items.
If you find an error in one of your reports, consider ordering the other two reports as soon as possible. To fix a mistake, you'll need to contact the credit reporting company that listed the error. (If they all list the error, you'll need to contact each company.) The three credit-reporting companies have dedicated sections of their Web site for reporting mistakes and will address your concerns in 30 days. Instead of disputing the information online, consider submitting your dispute in writing to keep a paper trail. Send copies of your proof, not originals.