Half of high-school seniors don't know about free annual access to credit reports from the three consumer credit-reporting companies, according to a study released in late 2008 by the Jumpstart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.

A credit report gives lenders and even prospective employers a picture of a potential borrower or employee's credit repayment history.

Maxine Sweet, vice president of public information for Experian, explains how her credit-reporting agency handles information about minors. "If an individual's name is on an account, creditors are expected to report it regardless of the age. However, by policy, Experian does not report any account information for minors." Instead, the information is stored and updated, but suppressed. When someone turns 18, the entire report is made available.

If you've helped your teenagers build a positive credit history, it will help them when they turn 18 and want to buy a car or get a student loan. "The flip side is that if they don't make payments as agreed, that history will hurt them when they turn 18," cautions Sweet.

With your teenager, visit the Web site for requesting free credit reports and review the frequently asked questions (FAQs). "Only one Web site is authorized to fill orders for the free annual credit report you are entitled to by law--annualcreditreport.com," notes Laura Levine, executive director of the Jumpstart Coalition. Other Web sites often claim to offer 'free credit reports,' 'free credit scores,' or 'free credit monitoring,' but they are not part of the legally mandated free annual credit report program.

If you're comfortable discussing family finances with your teenager, request your credit report and review it together.

Get in the habit of checking your credit report regularly. Space your requests for free reports throughout the year so that you're monitoring your credit "report card" every four months. It will help you spot faulty information that you can fix before applying for a loan, or alert you to the fact that you've been the victim of identity theft.