Free credit reports: not so free

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- For years, catchy advertisements have convinced viewers that if they don't log on to a Web site offering a free credit report, they could end up living in their parents' basement or working at a seafood restaurant.

But starting Friday, those Web sites will have a new message for their customers.

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As part of the new CARD Act of 2009, companies advertising free credit reports are now required to clearly disclose that what's being marketed isn't the free credit report you're entitled to receive by law.

The Federal Trade Commission provides consumers with one free credit report a year from each of the major reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Consumers can access their free report by going to AnnualCreditReport.com. But other sites that claim to offer free credit reports often come with strings attached.

Companies like FreeScore.com, CreditReport.com and, of course, the ubiquitous FreeCreditReport.com, famous for its catchy jingles and pirate hat-wearing pitchman, are not part of the government mandate and have been accused of deceptively charging consumers for unwanted services such as credit monitoring products once they sign up for their free credit report.

"Consumers will think they're getting a report under the law, but will unknowingly get credit monitoring and other services they didn't ask for and then be charged fees for them," said Tiffany George, an attorney in FTC's division of privacy and identity protection.

"[These sites] will typically ask for your credit card information as part of the process, so when you thought you were completing the transaction for a free report, you were actually enrolling in another service."

According to the FTC, Web sites are now required to include this message across the top of any page mentioning free credit reports: "THIS NOTICE IS REQUIRED BY LAW. Read more at FTC.GOV. You have the right to a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com or 877-322-8228, the ONLY authorized source under federal law."

Consumers speak out

The FTC received more than 1,000 complaints from consumers who signed up for free credit reports. Many of them had no idea they were paying for an additional service until the charges showed up on their credit card bills.

And with most of these companies charging around $15 a month for credit monitoring services, "if you don't notice [the charges] initially and months go by before you do notice them, the fees will really add up," said George.

"R. Spath" of Massachusetts was one such consumer, who ended up paying a monthly fee for unwanted services.

"I have made the mistake of trying to get a free credit report only to be badgered into handing over credit card information 'for information only' and find that I have been charged fees that I didn't agree to because I didn't cancel something in time," Spath wrote in a comment to the FTC. "This practice is deceptive and preys on individuals who typically cannot afford such fees."

Companies advertising free credit reports usually give consumers a certain amount of time to opt out of an additional service before automatically charging them.

"Comments from most people indicated that they didn't know that they had signed up for the service in the first place, so they didn't even know there was a period of time in which they could opt out," said George.

And some angry customers found that opting out was not that easy. Companies often required consumers to call and speak with a live operator who would then try to talk them into buying another product.

Adapting to the new rules

As a result of the new disclosure laws, many companies are moving away from offering free credit reports, and are instead advertising free trials, free scores or inexpensive -- but not free -- reports.

Experian's FreeCreditReport.com has already removed its guarantee of a free credit report. A notice on the site's homepage explains that the company is no longer able to provide free reports "due to federally imposed restrictions" and will now charge consumers $1, but will donate the proceeds to charity.

And while George said she can't comment on how individual companies are reacting to the rule, the FTC will be monitoring these sites to make sure they are complying. "Companies who fail to comply with the rule can be subject to an FTC enforcement action," she added.

The new disclosure rule kicks in for TV and radio advertising in September.

While this will force companies to reassess their on-air strategies as well, for now at least, it's unlikely that we've heard the last of FreeCreditReport.com's clever ditties. To top of page

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