Credit Retort

What Websites That Offer Free Credit Reports Are Up To

Q: I've been hearing all these radio ads for a website offering free credit reports. Sounds too good to be true, but the site's got this hard sell going about how it's totally not a scam: "So what's the catch? There isn't one!" Should I take the plunge?

Only if you're very, very careful about heeding the fine print, and even then Mr. Roboto's prone to advise "ixnay." The site you're referring to is either Credit Retort or one of its many affiliates, which are run by credit-bureau heavyweight Experian. What they're really trying to do is hook you on a pricey monitoring service, plus stick you with some other petty fees. The Experian hustle is nothing, however, compared to some of the more dubious credit-report cons that litter the Net.

As is usually the case with online offers, especially those that rely on spam to advertise, FreeCreditReport.com buries some vital information. As you note, the splash page is pretty insistent that there's no catch. It does mention that you'll just love joining the CreditCheck Monitoring Service "on a FREE trial basis" (their caps), but doesn't really detail what this means. Nor is there any additional info provided on page one of the sign-up form.

It's not until you get to the part where you have to input your credit card number that they drop the bombshell. In the second paragraph of the privacy notice, it's made clear that what you're really doing is signing up for an $80-per-year service that'll send you periodic updates on your credit status. You can escape the charge by canceling the membership within 30 days of signing up; you'll have to call 888-888-8553, since there's no electronic opt-out method.

Stashing this detail in the privacy policy is clever indeed, as Experian's well aware that 99.99 percent of the population doesn't bother reading such legalese. Another truth worth knowing is mentioned in the site's FAQ, in response to the question "Why was I billed for my score?" The report is free, but if you ask for your credit score—that is, the number that potential landlords and lenders use to judge your reliability—you're gonna have to pay, 30-day free trial or not. To top it all off, the Better Business Bureau (bbb.com) has rated FreeCreditReport.com as "having an unsatisfactory business performance record based on a pattern of unanswered customer complaints alleging unauthorized credit card charges."

Mr. Roboto snooped around a slew of other sites boasting similar deals, and discovered they're all just variations of FreeCreditReport.com, steering you toward that $80 CreditCheck Monitoring Service. CreditExpert .com? GetMyReport.com? All signs point to an Experian division called Consumer Direct, which peddles the service. Though the freebie offered by many of these sites is a report produced by Equifax, not Experian, don't be fooled; they all trace back to an office suite in Orange, California, that's leased by an Experian subsidiary. (God bless that "WHOIS" function at NetworkSolutions.com!)

If you need a copy of your report, there's a good chance you can get a free or at least cheap one without the FreeCreditReport.com hassle. If you've been denied credit or employment, or been a victim of fraud, you can request a free report within 60 days of the cataclysm. Also, legislation currently moving through Congress would grant consumers one free report each year. The credit bureaus will be fighting this like the dickens, so sit tight. In the meantime, you can plunk down about $13 and buy a report from a name-brand site like Equifax.com or TransUnion.com. Even Experian.com will sell you one that way with no strings.

Steer way clear of any online services that tab themselves as credit repairers. The New York Consumer Protection Board (consumer.state.ny.us) has warned residents about ClearCredit.com, a California firm that purports to help you clear up mistakes on your report. What they really do, according to the CPB, is dispute every little trifling thing in your credit profile, from name to address to how much you paid for that last pair of Pony kicks. And, yes, you get charged for every appeal—upward of $500 when all's said and done.

The CPB says ClearCredit.com is now operating a new site, GetCleanCredit.com. Same old, same old, though. Avoid it like it was covered with red ants.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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