A $10 billion class action settlement with TransUnion Corp.could give millions of consumers free access to their credit scores. Consumer advocates expressed surprise and delight. One called the settlement "astonishing."

The settlement, which still awaits final review in federal court, would cover some 160 million consumers in the United States. It's thought to be the largest number of class action plaintiffs ever included in a single case.

Consumers would get either six months of basic credit reporting services -- which normally retails for $59.75 -- plus a cash payment. Or they could choose nine months of enhanced service, which includes a mortgage rate simulator and an insurance score.

Though handy for just about anyone, the information would be especially helpful for consumers whose finances are in turmoil because of mortgage woes, sagging home values, high gas prices and other vexing economic issues.

The service would give consumers access to the latest information in their credit reports as well as their current scores at any time.

It would also would notify consumers by e-mail of significant changes to their files, including reports of late payments or accounts opened in their names. The latter information could help thwart attempted identity theft.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, charged that TransUnion had sold customized information about consumers to lenders and retailers, who may have used the information fo rmarketing purposes.

Federal law bars the sale of consumers' private credit information except under certain circumstances, such as when they have applied for a loan.

Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, called the settlement "astonishing" and "mind-boggling."

"It's everything we tell consumers that they need to find out if they have problems with their credit," he told The Los Angeles Times. "They are getting information on how to improve it and information about whether they are creditworthy."

Federal law entitles everyone to a free copy of his or her credit report once a year from each of the three major credit-reporting companies, but it doesn't provide access to credit scores.