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Equifax and TransUnion fined $23 million for misrepresenting credit products

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined top credit bureaus TransUnion and Equifax for deceiving consumers about the cost and value of their credit products. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Two of the nation’s largest credit reporting bureaus, TransUnion and Equifax, will together pay more than $23 million in fines and refunds to settle charges from a federal consumer watchdog that they misled consumers about the pricing and value of credit products.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Tuesday that the companies deceived consumers by suggesting that the credit scores they provided were the same scores used by financial firms to make lending decisions when in fact, the scores “were not typically used by lenders.” The firms were also unclear about the price structure of some products, marketing them as free or costing $1, when consumers were actually being enrolled in subscriptions that cost $16 a month.

“Credit scores are central to a consumer’s financial life and people deserve honest and accurate information about them,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.

Equifax and TransUnion will pay $17.6 million combined in restitution for consumers and $5.5 million in fines to the CFPB. The companies will need to notify affected customers about the refunds.

Credit scores can play an important role in consumers’ financial lives, affecting the rates they earn on loans and their ability to obtain credit. But financial firms often use a variety of credit scores when making lending decisions, at times tailoring the score to the type of loan.

The credit bureaus offered products that were being marketed as free, or as costing $1 in the case of TransUnion. But the CFPB said it was not made clear to consumers that they would face monthly charges adding up to almost $200 a year if they didn’t cancel their subscriptions at the end of the trial period, which lasted one week or 30 days. The practices started as early as July 2011 for TransUnion and between July 2011 and March 2014 for Equifax.

As part of the enforcement action, the companies will need to change how they market and sell certain products. The companies will need to gain consumers’ consent before signing them up for products that may lead to additional charges. And consumers will need to be given an easy way to cancel credit-related services to avoid those charges.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — are required to offer consumers one free credit report a year through The CFPB said that until January 2014, Equifax violated part of that agreement by showing advertisements to consumers before they viewed their credit reports. It was supposed to show ads only after consumers had received their reports.

Equifax said in a statement that it began making changes to address the CFPB’s concerns shortly after the agency’s investigation began about three years ago. The company said it does not believe it violated any laws in not admitting liability. TransUnion said it believed that its consumer marketing “complied with the law” and that it will “fully compensate any consumer who may not have understood that his or her trial program would convert to a subscription.”

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