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FreeCreditReport.com isn't free; you want AnnualCreditReport.com

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A18

Beginning April 1, when you go online to view your federally mandated free annual credit reports, you'll get exactly what you came for. Hopefully.

The Credit CARD Act of 2009, which has eliminated a number of unfair credit card practices, also requires the Federal Trade Commission to issue new rules to prevent deceptive marketing of the free reports generated by each of the three national credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Those free reports are available through AnnualCreditReport.com, the site authorized by the government.

But since the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act was signed into law in 2003, there has been a lot of confusion among consumers about which Web site provides the official reports. The ubiquitous commercials for an unrelated site, FreeCreditReport.com, featuring the curly-haired, guitar-playing guy haven't helped.

Heck, even until April 1, people still have to go through a gantlet of advertising before being allowed to click their way to their reports on AnnualCreditReport.com.

When you first get to the official site, you must read carefully, lest you be diverted to the Web sites for the bureaus. On the site, there is bold red lettering that says: "Start here to view and print your credit report now." You then have to select the state you live in to begin the free-credit-report process.

But some people assume they should click on the credit-bureau links below that wording. Once on the sites for TransUnion, Experian or Equifax, viewers are hit with marketing pitches for various products or services, including monitoring of credit reports or the ability to buy credit-score access. Credit scores differ from credit reports, which contain consumers' credit history. The scores are used to determine how creditworthy people are. There is no requirement for the bureaus to provide free credit scores.

Even setting aside the possible detours on the centralized free site, there's another opportunity to get misdirected. After you've entered personal information on AnnualCreditReport.com, you'll still encounter sales pitches from the credit bureaus. The law doesn't prohibit the credit-reporting agencies from advertising their proprietary products and services through the centralized source. People have to decline the offers one by one before being allowed to get their free reports.

But next month, the advertising has to be moved to the end of the process. This is better -- but not ideal.

I understand why the credit bureaus want to advertise. They have stuff they want to sell. However, the centralized site should be an advertising-free zone. This would eliminate any chance that somebody might still think they have to pay to get a look at their credit files.

In the Federal Register notice about the rule changes, the Federal Trade Commission said that a ban would be more restrictive than necessary but that it would monitor the required disclosures. If the commission finds that the delayed advertising still results in significant consumer confusion, the FTC says, it will revisit the issue.

At least after the new rule becomes effective, the hyperlinks on the home page for AnnualCreditReport.com will be taken down. This will go a long way to keep people on the right site.

On another front, in an effort to help keep people from ending up on fake sites or falling for certain promotions, the FTC will require prominent disclosures on Web sites pitching free credit reports. Many companies claim to offer a free credit report, but to get it you have to buy a product or service.

Let's look at one site that often confuses people:

The last time I visited FreeCreditReport.com, I saw this notice at the top of the home page -- "Free credit reports are available under Federal law at: AnnualCreditReport.com."

That wording isn't going to be good enough under the new rule.

Any commercial Web site offering free credit reports must include a specific disclosure across the top of every page that includes the following language: "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."

The amended rule won't immediately apply to the wording of disclosures for television and radio advertisements. Companies have until Sept. 1 to add clearer language in those ads.

Here's a direct link -- http://www.ftc.gov/freereports -- to file a complaint if you paid for what you thought was your free annual credit report. If you get your credit reports after the new rules apply and encounter a problem, let the FTC know.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless aspecific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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