The information below was included in a column that first appeared in print on Oct. 21, 2017. It provides good information about checking your credit reports, why it's important and other credit advice.

Checking your credit reports regularly is important. You can do it for free, thanks to federal law, so you should take advantage of it.

I interviewed Victor Russell, regional operations manager of Apprisen, formerly Consumer Credit Counseling of Northeast Ohio, for some advice to share.

By law, all consumers are allowed one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Go directly to the official website and not to the credit bureaus themselves. Any “free” report you get from the credit bureaus usually is tied to a trial for a paid credit-monitoring product. The official free site is https://www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. You must disclose your Social Security number and answer some verification questions. A credit freeze still allows you to get your report.

To cut down on pre-approved credit card offers, you can also opt out by calling 888-5-OPT OUT. (You may still receive offers from companies with which you have an established relationship.)

There is also a fourth, lesser known credit bureau named Innovis. You can make the request online for free at https://www.innovis.com or you can call 800-540-2505.

Here are parts of my conversation with Russell:

Q: Why should I pull my credit reports?

A: This is your first line of defense against identity theft that exists. When you see evidence of ID theft on your credit report, you can take the necessary steps to clean it up. So much emphasis is placed on the credit score, which is used not only by lenders, but auto insurance companies. You want your information in your credit report to be as accurate as possible. Also, potential employers may look at a credit report. (Your various credit scores are based on the information in a particular bureau's credit report, so they differ.)

(If there are mistakes, such as incorrect payment information, or even a typo in your name or address, you should dispute it to get it fixed. That could also cause problems when you need to verify your identity by answering questions about what's in your report.)

Q: When should I pull my credit report?

A: When you're looking at a big purchase, it's worth getting that information and taking a look at where you stand. (The reports all vary since consumers have no control over what creditors report information to which bureau.) I like to spread mine out. This way, all year long, I'm getting an idea of what's being reported about me.

Q: What about spouses?

A: Yes, especially if you're applying for loans together. We also recommend when people are thinking about getting married to look at credit reports. You're marrying those finances as well.

Q: What if my credit card company or other sites offer a free credit report or a free credit score?

A: Folks need to remember that the information you receive uses different algorithms; it's not the same score as you're going to see from a lender. But it gives you an idea of what your score is going to be.

Whatever tool you use, just make sure you know what you're looking at. Too often, people say “I think my credit score is good. I looked at my credit report.” But they may not have looked at it all.

Also, understand the difference between the Vantage score (created by the credit bureaus) and the FICO score (the most widely used by lenders). The general difference between the two models is the FICO will look at a longer period of time going back and the Vantage score only looks back at the last two years.

(Each bureau also offers the purchase of a credit score when you are requesting your free credit report at http://www.annualcreditreport.com, but watch the fine print. For at least two of them, Experian and TransUnion, you are signing up for a trial for a monthly subscription, unless you cancel.)

Q: Can I gauge whether my credit score might be good without checking it?

A: If your credit card balances are below one-third of what the credit limits are and you're paying your standard bills on time, the auto and credit card, your score is going to be good. Sixty-five percent of the FICO score are those two factors. If you have any collections, that type of debt is going to drag your score down.

Q: My credit card company wants to increase my credit limit, even though I don't need it. Should I take that to make my debt-to-credit utilization better?

A: I always say no to those. I know where my credit score is and I know I manage my credit effectively. I pay my balance off every month and my score is still very high. Some people say you need to carry a balance in order to have a good score. That hasn't been the case with me.

Q: I know people who have opened a lot of store credit cards to get discounts and then don't use them. Does that hurt their credit score? Also, should someone close an account after the debt is paid off?

A: That's going to have a negative effect on your credit score. Limit the amount you open up during a specified period of time. But you also don't want to close them at once, or close accounts that you've paid off. If you pay off a balance, it's a positive credit reference. If a card is not charging you annual fees, they will eventually close out those accounts for you if there's no activity.

Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty