Gov't cracks down on credit report websites

April 2, 2010 3:53:28 PM PDT
You've seen the ads that promise a free credit report. But signing up has left many consumers with a surprise monthly fee. Now, those sites offering free credit reports have new federal guidelines which protect consumers. The new laws require disclosures and even links to a real free credit report, but even with the changes, consumers may still end up unknowingly paying for something they don't want.

Search for "free credit reports" on the Internet, and you will find plenty of websites that seem to offer exactly what you want. But many consumers who clicked on the links ended up signing up for a monthly service they never wanted to buy.

"You go on and you get the free credit report, and then it charges monthly to your debit card that you put on the website," said Heather Smith, who looked for a free credit report. "Not really free, yeah."

And getting the sites to stop charging your card a fee could be tough.

"You try to call and say, 'Hey, I did not sign up,' and they say, 'Oh, it's a recurring fee, and you signed up,' and it takes forever to get it back off," said Wendi Bone, who also looked for a credit report. "My husband is pretty persuasive, so he usually gets them to take it off, yeah."

Now websites that advertise free credit reports must disclose the monthly charges and inform consumers they have a right to a free credit report.

The message must also provide a link to the government's free credit report website annualcreditreport.com.

Dan Parsons with the Houston Better Business Bureau says he likes the changes.

"When the Federal Trade Commission, an arm of the government, comes in and does something to make it frankly easier for consumers -- a little less obvious to be ripped off -- you got to take advantage of it," Parsons said.

But the new rules do not apply to sites advertising a free credit score. Those sites can still offer free credit scores while enrolling consumers into a monthly subscription service.

The key to prevent the unwanted charges is to read the fine print.

"I think consumers that do the due diligence, look carefully, you know, stop and pause before they just jump to a website or phone number, they will be protected," Parsons said.

The rules for TV and radio ads will also change, but not until September, so you'll probably see and hear the ads, but when you go to the websites you should see the new disclosures.

You can get an annual real free credit report at annualcreditreport.com. You are entitled to see the credit report from each of the three credit bureaus, but you are not entitled to see the score for free.

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