Today, residents of the Washington area and the rest of the East Coast can finally order one free copy a year of their credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus.
The annual free credit reports were mandated by Congress two years ago to reduce the incidence of identity theft by encouraging consumers to regularly check their credit histories for suspicious activity, such as a new credit card account that was never requested.
But consumers should be prepared: Getting the reports may not be easy. The Federal Trade Commission has received nearly 2,100 complaints from consumers about the program since it was launched on the West Coast last year. Nearly 80 percent, or 1,641 consumers who complained, said they were unable to order the free reports, either online or over the telephone. An additional 435 said they ordered the reports but never received them. Many of these latter requests were made by mail.
Typical is this complaint filed last month: "EXTREMELY difficult to find how to request free report. Once I did find it, I completed the on-line request form, then was told I had to request the report by mail. They are making the process complicated." This complaint, along with others, was obtained by The Washington Post under a Freedom of Information Act request.
In some cases, consumers have complained that they were asked to pay a fee before they could get their reports.
Still others say the credit bureaus have incorrect information on file, making it impossible for them to get their reports. One July complainant, for instance, noted that she couldn't get a report because "they said my birth year did not match the birth year on the report. My birth year is 1951. What other number could I enter?"
More worrisome to consumers is being told they can't get a free report because they already received one. "Consumer states that she has not ordered her credit report and is concerned about who obtained her annual credit report," says a July 22 complaint. The consumer has tried repeatedly to call the credit bureau "but has been unable to reach anyone" -- another concern that appears repeatedly.
It's unclear how many credit histories have been requested or issued under the new free-report program. The three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- declined to disclose any numbers, saying such information was proprietary. As a result, it is impossible to say what percentage of consumers have encountered difficulties.
Joel Winston, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission's Financial Practices Division, said "many millions of consumers" have received their free reports but declined to disclose the precise number because he said such data are considered confidential under the law.
To make it easy for consumers to get their reports, the credit bureaus set up a special Internet site, https://www.annualcredit report.com, a toll-free phone line and a mailing address, all of which became available to West Coast consumers on Dec. 1. Residents of the Midwest and South were subsequently able to get their reports in spring and summer.
The drive to curb identity theft may have in fact opened the door to a number of phony Web sites. Earlier this month, the FTC said it had identified 130 impostor sites that may be trying to mislead consumers. Consumer groups that have monitored these sites say many either charge a fee for a free report or, worse, try to collect personal information that can be used to commit future identity theft.
Many of these sites have been designed to look like the officially sanctioned site and some have sound-alike names or Internet addresses that are very similar, off by only a letter or punctuation mark, to take advantage of any misspellings or typos.
Yet, even if consumers go to the correct Web site, there are still problems, according to the complaints received by the FTC.
The 2,100 complaints received by the FTC from consumers "is a large number of complaints considering the system has been in place only since December 1, 2004, and has not been available to the entire country," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, which has been monitoring the free-credit-report program.
The FTC, however, defended the system, saying many of the complaints stem from consumers inaccurately answering key questions asked on the Internet site, such as a credit card account number, the name of a mortgage lender or the amount of the last monthly mortgage payment. Because consumers can obtain instant access to their reports after they correctly answer these questions, it is better that the Web site be cautious and reject people if any information is incorrect, FTC officials said. "We feel pretty strongly about that issue," said Winston. "It's important credit bureaus get enough information so they are not sending out reports to the wrong people. That would be a disaster."
Despite the problems, consumer advocates continue to urge Americans to take advantage of the free credit reports, since credit histories are used by lenders to make loans, employers to hire and landlords to rent properties.
"With so many uses made of credit report these days, it's vitally important that consumers regularly check them," said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit advocacy group.