Free Credit Reports To Fight Fraud

When CBS News first met Mark Cowen seven years ago he was a victim of identity theft, fighting to get back his good name and good credit.

Today, as CBS News Correspondent

, Cowen says the new law allowing consumers like him free access to their credit reports would have saved him a lot of time and money.

"I wish it would have happened a few years ago, because I know there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of us that have been yelling about this," says Cowen.

The program, starting Wednesday in 13 Western states and rolling out across the country over the next 10 months, requires the three big credit companies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to give consumers their credit reports once a year at no charge.

It's designed to combat the growing identity theft crisis, now striking more than 10 million consumers a year.

"Looking at your credit file is a very good hedge against identity theft, you can see if there is anything unusual, can detect entries that may look odd to you," says Don Girard of Experian, one of the big three companies.

Consumer advocates say it's about time - a good first step but no solution.

"It will give you a heads up if something is wrong, but just knowing that the crime is happening won't stop it," says Douglas Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. "We have to clamp down on banks that are trading our private information like pork bellies."

As for Cowen, seven years later he's still trying to clear the mess off his credit reports.

"Sadly a lot of the information that is fraudulent is still there and it takes a while for it to get swept off my report," says Cowen.

As the saying goes: There's no free lunch. And the same might be said of credit reports. Watch now for the big three credit companies to give free reports with one hand while pushing costly, new identity protection services with the other.