The Truth About “free” Credit Reports
We set the record straight so that won’t happen. Text How many of us have looked at anything offered to us for “free”? Not me? Of course I have. In this day in age when gas prices are listed as “Arm” and “Leg”, providing health insurance for your family costs more than some mortgage payments and the cost of raising kids looks like a hockey stick pasted onto a graph, you bet I look at offers to save money.
Therein lie’s the problem. It seems like the vast majority of American consumers are desperate to cut costs, any costs, and will jump too soon at offers promising to do just that. Sometimes when you combine a cost cutting mentality with the importance of credit, not only to purchase the big ticket items important to us, but more and more to simply survive in this economy, desperation happens. Unfortunately, the marketers know this too. So, without a little education anyone can get confused and the likelihood of being taken advantage of increases significantly. The good news is that just a little education will save you plenty.
Take for example, the term “Free Credit Report”. It now ranks right up there with the ubiquitous, “new” and “improved”. “Free Credit Report” has become part of that lexicon of advertising buzz words that are absolutely meaningless to me. But for many, there is much confusion over this term. Why? I think mainly because it has been announced that federal law dictates we are all entitled to a free credit report on the front page of all the newspapers.
We know everyone wants a free credit report, which is why we started our site. People naturally want something that is mandated by law to be at no cost, is front page news and is so incredibly important to each of us if we want to purchase just about anything. We know people want their free credit report and because most all of us work so hard for our money, we think people deserve hearing the truth about the subject. That is why we even put a section on our page entitled, “The Truth About Free Credit Reports”.
So, is it not true? Yes, it is true, it’s just that the devil is in the details and the resulting confusion has been a bonanza for those seeking to cash in on the confusion. In fact, each of us in the good ole U. S. of A. is entitled to a free credit report. But, how do you get it? Where do you get it? Who is giving it to you? Why is it being offered for free? And most importantly, who cannot offer you one for free?
Who cannot offer a free credit report? Let’s start with the last one first because it shines a lot of light on the rest of the questions. Any company, web site or service that is in business for a profit and is not named Experian, Trans Union or Equifax is not able to provide anyone at any time with anything remotely resembling a credit report free of cost. Period. End of story. Got that? Further, there is one place set up on the web to get free copies of credit reports at no cost and it is: www.annualcreditreport.com . We’ll talk more about this site a little later but, other wise, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.
How then are these offers being made? Look closely, the “Free” report is usually offered initially upon signing up for a service that charges your credit card each month for monitoring your credit. If you cancel the service just in the nick of time, before the charge is made to your card, you will get it at no cost. What a hassle! And the bet is you will wake up at least one, if not a couple or more months later with several charges to your card. You think these guys make foolish bets?!
Then what caused a free credit report to be offered on the front page of newspapers, who is providing them and how and where do I get one? Due to the importance of consumer credit history, identity theft and complaints from consumer rights groups about having to purchase a credit report in order to gain knowledge about the contents shown on individual consumer reports, even if it was reported inaccurately, a change was mandated.
The Fair and Accurate Consumer Trade Act (FACTA), a revision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, provided for one credit report free of charge from the reporting agencies (Experian, Trans Union and Equifax) every twelve months, if and only if, you haven’t received a credit report in the previous twelve months. The consumer, by either mailing a written request to the three major credit reporting agencies or going to www.annualcreditreport.com one can obtain the free report if they meet the criteria. This program was and is being phased in to sections of the U.S. by the credit reporting agencies starting in the western states, with the northeastern states at the time of this writing still to come.
However, Pamela Yip of The Dallas Morning News writes that even this has not been without its problems.
“The Federal Trade Commission said Experian Information Solutions Inc., one of the three major credit bureaus, settled complaints that it “deceptively marketed ‘free credit reports’ by not adequately disclosing that consumers automatically would be signed up for a credit report monitoring service and charged .95 if they didn’t cancel within 30 days… . With the help of the Federal Trade Commission, the bureaus established www.annualcreditreport.com as the only authorized online source for consumers to get a free report under federal law.
While many consumers haven’t had any problem getting their reports, others say they’ve been hit with sales pitches for products and services from the credit bureaus or were diverted to imposter sites. The FTC said the company led consumers to its www.freecredit report.com and www.consumer info.com Web sites. Radio, TV, e-mail and Web ads promised free reports and “a bonus – free trials of a credit-monitoring service.”
The FTC said consumers “were assured that: ‘Your card will not be charged during the free trial period. However, valid credit card information is required to establish your account.’ ”
What the Web sites didn’t adequately disclose is that consumers would be charged the .95 annual fee if they didn’t cancel within 30 days, the FTC said.
“ConsumerInfo billed the credit cards that it had told consumers were ‘required only to establish your account,’ and, in some cases, automatically renewed memberships by rebilling consumers without notice,” the agency said.
As part of the settlement, the FTC required ConsumerInfo.com, an Experian company, to “give up 0,000 in ill-gotten gains.”
Experian also has agreed to provide refunds to consumers who purchased credit-monitoring products and ordered a free credit report between Nov. 1, 2000, and Sept. 15, 2003.
“It’s unfair and deceptive to promise consumers something for free and then trick them into paying for products they didn’t want in the first place,” said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
“It wasn’t an attempt to mislead at all,” said Peg Smith, an Experian executive vice president. “We absolutely deny any wrongdoing.” She does acknowledge that consumers may have been confused.
“To the effect that our product offering has caused that confusion, we certainly regret that,” Ms. Smith said. “We encourage consumers to read the language in any disclosure on any Web site, including our own.”
The FTC also requires ConsumerInfo.com to state clearly that its free credit report offer isn’t related to the federal program.” http://nl.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_action=list&p_topdoc=21
The reality is that no one credit report or combination of three credit reports by and of themselves is sufficient to educate oneself about where you stand as a consumer in the eyes of a lender. Imagine a high speed race boat zooming across a lake at top speed without a steering wheel. Where it is going is a complete mystery but one thing is for sure, it will crash and crash quickly unless you get control. That’s right, you. Because without your credit scores and the knowledge about what they mean, how they were calculated or how a lender views them, you are headed for a crash.
No bank, credit card issuer, mortgage company, retail store or any other credit provider will grant you any item, service or product without looking almost exclusively at your credit scores and the average person has no idea what their scores are and even if they did, many if not most, wouldn’t know what they mean.
For example, most people don’t even know that repeated “pulling” of your credit reports by potential credit grantors lowers your scores by as much as four points per “pull”. You start “shopping” around for the best rate on a credit card by allowing each credit issuer to run a credit report on you and your score will take a dive. The difference between a 699 score and a 700 represents thousands and thousands of dollars in interest.
Often, credit issuers don’t make it perfectly clear that your credit history is being accessed when you respond to their offer for a new card over the phone. The call center sales representative also doesn’t explain and state clearly to you, that your credit history will show an “official inquiry” which counts against your scores whether you are accepted or rejected.
Most people don’t know that a maxed out credit card lowers their scores even if they pay on time every month. Many don’t know until it is too late that one late payment on one credit card will cause the interest rate charged to skyrocket not only on that card but any other cards that have a balance! Most also don’t know that a credit card balance showing less than thirty per cent of the available balance improves the score. Most don’t know that in calculating credit scores, your payment history counts as 35% of the score, amounts owed count 30% of the score, length of your credit history counts 15% of the score, new credit is 10% of the score and types of credit in use is 10%.
What is the truth about free credit reports? The truth, is that consumers need to read the fine print very, very carefully and get educated. The truth about credit reports in general is that only part of the story is being told by one. The truth, is that knowledge is power and without it your money is being taken from you, your buying power and therefore your future is being dictated to you rather than by you and that the cost of everything including insurance is based on your scores.
If asked for my advice to the average consumer? Worry less about getting a “free” report and more about the real cost of being ignorant regarding credit. Worry more about the immediate and long term costs of not taking control of what is reported on your credit report both the correct and incorrect. Gain some credit knowledge. It is easy to do and will literally save you a fortune. One thing is absolutely for sure, your money and future and your children’s future will be severely impacted by your credit. How, is up to you.
Brown Heys is the Managing Partner for http://www.tradenote.net, a web site providing online shopping, reviews of and links to some of the top web based credit reporting sites. A statement regarding the truth about free credit reports is found there as well as the link to http://www.tradeleads.at.
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