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The Color of Money

Don’t get fooled again: freecreditreport.com aims to make you spend money

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / November 3, 2009

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I’ve been meaning to pull my credit reports. I, like so many others, am concerned about identity theft or uncorrected errors. When I finally got around to checking my reports, I knew to go to www.annualcreditreport.com. I have not been fooled by those clever commercials for freecreditreport.com with the goofy guy playing a guitar complaining about how his life is messed up because he didn’t check his credit report.

But the Federal Trade Commission has received many complaints from consumers who were misdirected from the official site. Every consumer is entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

In an effort to help keep consumers from ending up on imposter sites or falling for promotions for free credit reports that aren’t really free, the FTC is seeking public comment on proposed rules. You have a chance to weigh in. This isn’t a trivial matter. These rules will dictate how you get your credit reports. Most of what the FTC is proposing will make things better, but the agency needs to be tougher.

Said Katherine Armstrong, an attorney with the FTC: “We want to know if we got it right.’’

On one important rule, the FTC has it only partly right. It wants to prevent the credit bureaus from offering any product or service until after consumers get their free reports. The law currently permits them to advertise their proprietary products and services through the centralized source, annualcreditreport.com.

Once you’ve followed directions and entered personal data, you encounter advertising for credit scores and credit monitoring services. Then you have to decline the offers before obtaining your credit report. I had to click through two Web pages of such marketing before getting to my report for one bureau.

Although the FTC said it recognized the potential for confusion from such marketing, it initially chose not to restrict it. Now, the FTC is proposing that any advertising or marketing be delayed until after consumers have obtained their reports and that the credit bureaus remove the links to their websites from annualcreditreport.com.

On the official site, bold red lettering says “Start here to view and print your credit report now.’’ Some people assume they should click on the credit bureau links below that wording. If they do, they leave the free site. Another proposed rule would require that companies prominently inform consumers they have not landed on the official free site.

The FTC should remove all advertising before, during, and even after the process of getting a free credit report. People should be able to get their reports and exit the website without having to go through a gauntlet of sales pitches.

If you’re with me, let the FTC know.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.