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Phone (don't click) for your free credit report

There are three ways to get a free copy of your credit report each year, but you can protect your bank account and privacy by skipping the online method and calling the toll-free phone number: 1-877-322-8228.

You can access the information online at annualcreditreport.com, but watch out -- if you don't get the Web address exactly right or if you search for terms such as "free credit report," you could get sucked in and scammed by one of the many credit report "impostors" currently inhabiting cyber world. A third method of obtaining the information is by regular mail, but you must first complete a form to send with your request and, of course, it takes longer.

The free credit reports come as a result of the FTC's final ruling under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.

According to the ruling, the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, each are required to provide consumers, upon request, a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months from a centralized source. This centralized source includes a Web site, a toll-free telephone number and a postal address.

The program is rolling out region-by-region with residents of the West and Midwest now eligible to request their free annual credit reports. Over the next six-month period, the availability will roll out eastward, with the last of the eastern states becoming eligible on Sept. 1, 2005. The reports will not automatically be sent out. You can request them three ways: Over the Internet by going to annualcreditreport.com; by phone, by calling 877-322-8228; or by completing the Annual Credit Report Request Form, and mailing it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA, 30348-5281.

The trio of reporting agencies established a single authorized Web source for customers to access the information for free: annualcreditreport.com. That is the only federally mandated source for free, no-strings-attached credit reports.

The rest of the Internet Web sites advertising "free" reports -- 98 of them as of this writing -- are in fact impostors whose real agenda is to steer unsuspecting consumers into a for-profit marketing enterprise, according to a World Privacy Forum in-depth investigation and report.

"As a long-time pro-technology advocate, it saddens me to advise consumers to avoid a legitimate Internet site," says Pam Dixon, WPF executive director. But, she adds, even the AnnualCreditReport.com site blurs the lines as to what services are free to consumers and what are available at a cost.

The WPF report uncovered dozens of confusing sites, many of which are operated by Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, the big three bureaus who together run the government-mandated and authorized free report site.

Fraudulent, deceptive and misspelled domains
An estimated 50 impostor domains are active and luring unsuspecting customers to questionable sites -- including to Experian, Equifax and TransUnion sites that charge for the very same service they are offering for free. In other words, while they run one Web site jointly that offers free reports, they're also running dozens of other sites -- often under different names, such as ConsumerInfo.com -- that charge for the same or additional services.


The WPF investigation identified 96 known misspelled, registered domains -- 28 of which belong to Experian and other credit services such as MyFico at FairIsaac. These sites try to exploit errors in typing to deliver you to a different site with services you have to pay for. Some of these impostor sites actually claim to be www.AnnualCreditReport.com, while others take advantage of the typing error to forward information on you to search engines or advertising partners of other affiliates.

Snags at authorized site
Even if you're fortunate and careful enough to get to the "real" free credit report site, you're still not out of the woods. When you visit the site you first fill in some personal information and continue to the next page. There, you have the choice of selecting one of the big three to order your report from.

Remember, you are entitled to one free report every 12 months from each of the big three credit reporting firms. You can order all three at once, which is good if you want to compare scores, or you can order one now and save the others for later on, which you may choose in order to see how scores improve or decline.

If you choose TransUnion, for example, it requires you to register to get your free report and asks for an e-mail address. If you sign up for its newsletter, it will share your credit and other information with affiliates and partners. Experian and Equifax, the WPF says, use confusing menus in offering the free credit reports and ordering reports from all three means a consumer would have to read and understand four different privacy policies. Robert Brennan, an attorney in La Crescenta, Calif., issues another interesting warning: Some of these online credit report sites contain a mandatory arbitration agreement which prevents you from taking a case against the credit bureau to court.

"I have long recommended the Internet to consumers for advice, research, and consumer information," says Dixon, "but in this case I strongly urge using the toll-free telephone number to order these reports. Doing that will expose you to far fewer hazards and challenges, some of which could be quite serious."

Scott Bilker, founder of DebtSmart.com and author of the best-selling "Talk Your Way Out of Credit Card Debt," says it is almost impossible to monitor, never mind control, the mushrooming of these impostor sites. "The big credit bureaus do offer free credit reports. But they are also quick to order information about your credit score which comes at a price. They also try to sell other services such as credit score protection or credit management.

Paul Richard, executive director of the Institute of Consumer Financial Education (ICFE), also is warning consumers about bogus credit report sites. "If, for one reason or another, someone has to use the Internet for this purpose," he says, "the most critical thing to insure is that the correct address or URL has been typed in correctly."

Protecting yourself

  • Free is free: If you have to supply a credit card or checking account number, it means you're going to pay. You may get the initial credit report for free, but you may also be signing up for a continuing service at a price.
  • No junk mail: Don't respond to e-mail offers for free credit reports -- they're almost always spam.
  • Be secure: Always be sure you're on a secured Web site when entering your personal information.
  • Keep it secret: When phoning the toll free number (877-322-8228) for a free credit report, ask that only the last four digits of your Social Security number are displayed on the reports to be mailed to you.
  • Reduce solicitations: Don't give out your e-mail address to obtain a federally mandated free credit report -- it is not required.
  • Run from pop-ups: If you do choose to go online to https://www.AnnualCreditReport.com and see pop-up ads, or if the site is not secure, close your browser and start over. Secure sites will have a padlock logo in the corner, and the address will begin with https:// instead of just http://.
  • Check and uncheck: If you go online to https://www.AnnualCreditReport.com, be sure to look for any pre-checked marketing or newsletter offers. If you decide you do not want these offers, uncheck the box.

"In this day and age, with identity theft rampant," says attorney Brennan, grandson of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., "it's a good idea to subscribe to a monitoring service to keep on top of your credit report and changes each month."

For complete findings of the "Call, Don't Click" report visit WorldPrivacyForum.

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