Three national credit bureaus have agreed to pay a total of $2.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they failed to provide the adequate customer service that is required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The FTC said Equifax Credit Information Services Inc., Trans Union LLC and Experian Information Solutions Inc. did not have enough operators on duty during normal business hours to answer calls on toll-free telephone lines from consumers who had concerns about the contents of their credit reports.

In some cases, the FTC noted, consumers were put on hold for unreasonably long periods of time, with some waits nearing an hour.

The FTC said more than a million calls made to both Trans Union and Experian got a busy signal or a message telling consumers to call back because all representatives were busy. Hundreds of thousands of phone calls to Equifax met similar responses.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act is designed to guarantee accuracy in consumer credit reports. Its provisions include a requirement that credit bureaus maintain toll-free numbers with customer-service representatives available during normal business hours to answer questions from consumers who have received copies of their credit report.

With busy signals and long waits, "the reality is that consumers never got the access to the consumer reporting agencies that the law guarantees," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Under the FTC agreement, each of the three credit bureaus has agreed that at least 90 percent of its calls will be answered daily, with the average waiting time no more than 3.5 minutes.

Experian and Trans Union have each agreed to pay $1 million in civil penalties; Equifax will pay $500,000.

Peggy Twohig, FTC's assistant director for financial practices, said "companies should pay an amount that penalizes them so they are deterred from doing this in the future."

Maxine Sweet, Experian's vice president for consumer affairs, said company officials are "glad to have the case settled, but we were disappointed that we had to spend the money in a settlement instead of spending it toward improving consumer services."

Alan Boyer, assistant vice president of communications for Equifax, said that the FTC agreement "applies to a very small percentage of our transactions" and that "we handle 99.9 percent of our calls with a high degree of accuracy."

Similarly, Tran Union's vice president for consumer relations, Dave Wolff, said that "in many cases, our answer rate has well exceeded 90 percent."