Under the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, the credit reporting agencies must provide a yearly free credit report to individuals who request it. This was one of the benefits given to consumers by the law in return for extending the federal preemption of certain state law regulations.
There are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union. You may have heard that there’s a new website where you can conveniently get your credit report from all three agencies. Since I pay attention to this field of law, I knew the name of the website, but many people I’ve spoken to don’t know what it is called.
But we live in the age of Google, so most people would just do a Google search for “free credit report.” Here’s what you pull up in your search:
The first link, www.annualcreditreport.com, is the bona fide website. But many people might be confused by the second website in the list, called www.freecreditreport.com. [For a while, the Free Credit Report website pulled up first in the Google search results, but now it is ranked second.] Suppose that a person mistakenly went to this website:
Looks like a great site. You can get your free credit report. But wait . . . if you read carefully:
Thus, this isn’t the free credit report that is promised by law. Instead, it is a way to get people to sign up for credit monitoring service which costs $12.95 per month, or over $150 per year. This website is run by Experian, one of the credit reporting agencies that is by law required to provide you with a free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.
To be fair, the website does provide a link to the Annual Credit Report site, but then it says: “Remember, all free credit reports are not created equal. Get your Free Credit Report and Credit Score from the leading provider of consumer credit monitoring products.” So I guess that the message is you can get the crappy free credit report from the official Annual Credit Report website, or get the better free credit report from Experian which isn’t free.
But I wasn’t fooled. I went to the Annual Credit Report site and began the process. Here’s what the official Annual Credit Report site looks like:
It generally worked well. It directs you to each of the credit reporting agencies’ websites, where you either have to establish an account or answer certain questions to verify your identity.
Some of these questions were tough. One credit reporting agency asked me three multiple choice questions: (1) the name of my mortgage company (easy); (2) my monthly payment amount (not so easy, since it’s automatically deducted from my bank account — I had to dig up the statement to find the precise amount); and (3) the name of a street I once resided on (very hard). The last question was hard because the correct answer was a street I lived on while I was clerking for a judge in Los Angeles about 6 years ago. I lived there for just a year, and didn’t really remember the street name very well. But I guessed it correctly! Yippee!
The other thing of note is that many of the credit reporting agencies kept trying to sell me my credit score. Trans Union was particularly aggressive. It put up an entire screen urging me to pay $5.95 for it. I said “no thanks.”
But then, in a nice tricky way, toward the end of my session, after I got my credit report, it prompted me like this:
I almost fell for it. After all, it was on my “remember” to do list, as if I had forgotten to take this important step. And apparently, Trans Union and I are on a first name basis. With all they know about me, I guess it would be odd if we weren’t on a first name basis.
In the end, I got all my credit reports, and escaped without paying a dime. That wasn’t easy, though. . .
Some thoughts overall:
1. The official website should be www.freecreditreports.com, not www.annualcreditreports.com, which nobody can remember. By maintaining the www.freecreditreports.com website, Experian is causing confusion and is exploiting its legal requirement to provide free credit reports to hawk its expensive credit monitoring service instead.
2. It seems unseemly that credit reporting agencies are exploiting their legal requirement to provide free credit reports to consumers to sell various services and products. This shouldn’t be about making a quick buck from consumers. It’s part of their legal responsibility to provide consumers with better protection against identity theft — it shouldn’t be a marketing opportunity.
3. The thought that I can’t obtain another free credit report for a year strikes me as very problematic. That’s a long period of time not to be monitoring one’s credit report. Of course, I could pay to see my credit report more often . . . and my guess is that the credit reporting agencies would be more than happy to take my money.
Originally posted at Concurring Opinions
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.