Consumers in the Western United States will be able to start requesting free annual credit reports this December.

The program will be phased in across the rest of the country over a nine-month period, according to rules released Friday by the Federal Trade Commission (search).

The free credit reports were mandated in consumer privacy legislation President Bush signed into law last December. They are intended to help consumers looking to buy a home or apply for a loan, or those worried about identity theft.

Under the new rules, Americans in Western states will be able to begin requesting their free reports on Dec. 1. Midwestern states will become eligible on March 1, 2005, followed by Southern states on June 1 and Eastern states on Sept. 1.

A handful of states -- Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont -- already allow consumers to get free credit reports.

The FTC said staggering the request period should help the nation's three major credit bureaus -- Equifax Inc., Experian Information Solutions and Trans Union -- deal with the expected crush of consumers asking for their free credit history. The credit bureaus will eventually set up a Web site, a toll-free phone number and a mailing address for people to request reports.

"There was a lot of concern that the publicity generated from the beginning of the availability of these free reports would create a lot of excitement and a lot of demand for them, such that it might overwhelm the credit agencies in the early going," said Helen Goff Foster, staff attorney with the FTC's Division of Financial Practices.

Foster said the rollout will be cumulative, meaning that eligible consumers in the first phase of the program would still be able to make requests during the second, third and fourth phases.

Consumer groups were disappointed that it will take months before the program is completely implemented.

"It seems like an unnecessary delay," said Brad Scriber, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America (search). "The credit reporting agencies haven't met the burden of proof to show that this is necessary."

Still, Scriber encouraged people to take advantage of the free reports. "Consumers should mark their calendars and get their report. This is a long-overdue right," he said.

Equifax Vice President David Rubinger declined comment on the rules until he could review them. Calls to Experian and Trans Union were not returned.