• Free Annual Credit Reports – Strategies to Avoid Imposter Websites

    January 2, 2017 | blog
  • In a 2004 amendment to The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), a new system providing free credit reports was initiated. The amendment requires each of the three national Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs), Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, to provide free copies of an individual's credit report once every 12 months. The free reports require a request to be submitted to a centralized office, in accordance with procedures defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is charged with consumer protection and ensuring compliance to the FCRA from the Credit Reporting Agencies.


    The amendment was undertaken as a way to help individuals access the information contained in their credit reports. Prior to the amendment, credit reporting agencies were able to charge individuals for every copy of their credit report that they requested. Only under specific circumstances, such as searching for employment, were credit reports provided free of charge. This undermined fair access for individual's to access information about them collected by the CRAs.


    Understanding what information is in your credit report is important. Only then can you ensure that the information being reported about you is accurate and up to date. Your credit report impacts your life in many ways, from the ability to obtain credit to the amount of money you will pay for that credit.


    Fair access to such important information is critical. The unfortunate reality is that reporting mistakes do happen. Any errors or misinformation contained on a credit report can have a tremendous impact on a person's financial well being, job prospects, and housing prospects.


    The amendment mandated the three CRAs to implement a centralized website, toll free number, and mailing address as methods individuals may use to request their free credit reports. Although the centralized website was implemented as a way to offer consumers a quick and easy way to request their reports, it has come under severe criticism by various consumer
    protection groups.


    There are problems that plague the centralized website annualcreditreport.com. Some of these problems are related to difficulties inherent with the Internet and search engines. Others, some groups claim, are the result of poor planning and implementation on the part of the three Credit Reporting Agencies.


    Many of the consumer protection groups, including the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, urge consumers who are unfamiliar with the Internet to avoid using the centralized website to order their free credit reports. They further encourage those who choose to use the website to beware of a number of potential pitfalls the internet, and the website itself, present.


    The first problem has to do with the Internet itself. The three Credit Reporting Agencies purchased the website address (also called a URL (uniform resource locator) or domain name) annualcreditreport.com. It is common for unscrupulous webmasters to purchase domain names similar to others, with the goal of intercepting customers or consumers who search for the genuine website. These webmasters purchase domain names very similar to the real domain, and unsuspecting consumers mistakenly believe they've reached the correct website. These consumers are then redirected to paying sites, have their personal information collected without their knowledge, or signed up for services they don't want or need. In this way, unscrupulous webmasters make money. The FTC calls these websites 'imposter' websites.

    Unfortunately, consumer groups and the FTC have reported that some Credit Reporting Agencies are linked to some of these imposter websites. Recently, the FTC filed and settled a lawsuit against a subsidiary of one of the Credit Reporting Agencies. The lawsuit alleged "deceptive and misleading" claims on the subsidiary's website. This website was advertising free credit reports, and then automatically signing up consumers to a credit monitoring system that
    charged a fee if not cancelled by the unsuspecting consumer. In addition, the website was collecting personal information about the consumer.


    The World Privacy Forum reports that over 100 domain names with close misspellings of annualcreditreport have been purchased. Many of these have been purchased by the Credit Reporting Agencies themselves. In some cases, these websites lead consumers to websites that demand payment for services, and others lead consumers to the Credit Reporting Agencies websites themselves, where they are charged for copies of their credit reports. The second of these is largely the result of the CRA's affiliate marketing programs, whereby the CRA pays a website for a referral.


    The second problem with the centralized website lies in its implementation. Initially, the website was set up so that only the 3 CRAs and the FTC were able to provide a live web link to annualcreditreport.com. This prevented other legitimate websites, such as news and consumer group websites, from offering a live link on their website. In response to these concerns raised by Privacyrights.org, this situation has changed. The change is welcome, as consumer groups correctly pointed out that the initial web link block only served to make it easier for rogue websites to redirect consumers to illegitimate websites.


    There are two ways to find these imposter websites. One is to perform a search in any search engine, which results in a display of many websites. Clicking on anything but the genuine website can land a consumer on an imposter website. The other is by incorrectly typing the genuine website address into the address bar of a web browser. Many of these unofficial websites contain small typographical errors, designed to lure in just such a web surfer.

    Avoiding Imposter Websites


    Many consumer groups, including World Privacy Watch, urge consumers to avoid potential imposter sites by avoiding the internet altogether. Instead of ordering free credit reports online, use the toll free number or regular mail.


    The toll free telephone number is 1-877-322-8228. The mailing address is Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. If ordering by mail, a form must be completed and can be found on the FTC's website.


    Those consumers wanting to order online are urged to:


    1) Ensure that they are using the genuine website. The only website address is annualcreditreport.com.


    2) If the website you reach features a pop up, advertises itself on television or radio, or redirects you to a different site, know it is not the genuine website. Your credit card number is not required information, and you are not required to purchase or pay for any additional services. The genuine website will not send you any emails.


    3) Understand that you are required to provide only certain personal information, including your name, address, social security number, and date of birth. If you have had a change of address in the past 2 years, your old address may be requested. In addition, you may be asked about a personal financial detail that only you would know. This is to prevent anyone else accessing your credit report.


    Access to free annual credit reports is a welcome change to the laws governing credit reports and protecting consumer's rights. Every citizen should take advantage of this free service to ensure that the information being reported about them on their credit reports is accurate and up to date. As with any other service, consumers need to be aware of the potential danger that lurks behind the scenes by imposter websites and unscrupulous
    webmasters.