We shouldn’t be too surprised by the abundance of scams and people attempting to make money from the ‘free credit reports’ that were mandated through the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act of 2003 (FACT Act), yet consumer advocates are issuing warnings daily to consumers to use caution when attempting to exercise their rights under the Act.
So, let’s review the free credit report and the process to obtain one.
What do you get?
Your credit report will include (not necessarily in this order) you personal information such as your name, social security number, year of birth, name of employers, your telephone number, current and previous addresses, potentially negative items including public records and individual credit items, accounts in good standing and requests for your credit history by both you and others.
While all of this information may be accurate, various research reports suggest that you carefully review your report for errors that need correction.
Some examples of errors found on credit reports are personal information errors, inaccurate delinquency listings, or the information of other consumers, including public records, on your report.
What don’t you get with the free credit report?
First, you don’t get your credit score.
You can obtain your credit score from the credit reporting agencies (CRAs) for a charge.
As you know from previous DebtEdge articles and Defeat Debt newsletters, your credit score is not a fixed number.
The credit score varies and is calculated each time your credit history is accessed from the information on your report.
You may realize then, that checking your score would be less vital than checking on the accuracy of the information on the report from which the score is determined.
In addition, you get no assistance in actually reviewing your report or in correcting information with the free credit report.
While filing disputes once an error is identified is simple enough, it is nonetheless a time consuming process.
The follow up necessary for a dispute will require diligence as there are times when disputed errors re-appear on the report and the dispute process must be repeated.
Getting your report.
In late February, The World Privacy Forum, a consumer advocacy group, issued an extensive investigative report on the process of obtaining your free credit report.
There are three ways to request your free credit report: by phone, by mail or on the official online site www.annualcreditreport.com.
In the report, the group delivers an urgent warning to consumers attempting to utilize the website to make their requests.
What are some of the problems identified?
- Impostor Web domains - the report identifies 96 domains with nearly identical spellings as the official site.
Of these, 50 are known impostor sites, many of which claim on their home page to be the official site.
The report goes on to state that more such sites are expected to be located
- Commercial service advertisements and ‘pay per click’ schemes - these websites support themselves by advertising for other websites, often through search engines
- The official website subjects consumers to four different privacy policies - as you can imagine reading and understanding four different privacy policies so that you understand your rights on the official website is exhaustive and simply, not consumer friendly
- Pre-checked boxes requesting marketing information and product offers - unless you manually ‘uncheck’ the box, you are agreeing to receive these solicitations from numerous subsidiaries and affiliates of the credit reporting agencies
- Portions of the website are unclear as to what consumer information is required and what is voluntary to obtain a copy of your credit report - with all the recent questions and concerns about privacy of personal information and identity theft (one of the reasons the free credit report has been offered), requesting non-required information, like an email address, should be clearly noted as voluntary on all portions of the official site
What you’ve already got.
If you considering obtaining a copy of your free credit report, be credit smart and remember what services you already receive (before purchasing anything additional).
If you obtain a credit report from Credit Advisors, we will explain your credit report to you.
If you are an active participant in a debt management program (DMP) sponsored by Credit Advisors Foundation (CAF), in most instances we monitor your credit report for you on a bi-annual basis.
During a CAF credit report review we examine all listings on your credit report.
We notate your credit score and what, if any, creditors are not listed on your program.
If any discrepancies are found between the credit report and the information you have supplied, we notify you so you may begin the correction process if necessary.
The free annual credit report is major step forward for consumers.
It will improve our efforts to monitor for identity theft.
In addition, with the impact of credit scores and credit reports on so many aspects of our lives, it will help insure that only correct information appears on our credit report and as a result, calculate the best credit score possible.
Suggestions if you do order a report.
Attorney generals from a number of different states are also issuing consumer alerts regarding the free annual credit report.
Some have made suggestions to keep in mind when you do order your report.
First, avoid the official website at this time, if at all possible.
Order your report by phone or mail.
If by phone, expect to experience some delay with busy signals.
If by mail, complete the request form available on the Federal Trade Commissions website and mail to the address provided.
If monitoring your report to guard against identity theft consider staggering your requests.
You do not need to order credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies (CRA) at once.
By staggering your requests, you can obtain one from each CRA every four months.
Next, make sure that the address you list to receive your copy has a secure (locking) mailbox.
Always remember to request that only the last four digits of your social security number appear on the report copy.
Finally, if you must go on line to obtain your report use extreme caution accessing the official website.
In addition, be alert to storing your sensitive personal data (even temporarily) on a computer.
If you must use a computer with public access be aware that there are identity thieves out there who may ‘shoulder surf’ - watch over your shoulder (and even take pictures) as you enter your personal information.