Two years ago, Congress mandated that consumers can request one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. This program is designed to reduce identity theft by allowing consumers to check their credit histories for suspicious activity.
However, acquiring a free credit report is not always easy. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the Federal Trade Commission has received approximately 2,100 complaints from consumers reporting that their free credit report was extremely difficult to request online or by telephone. Some consumers have also indicated that they never received their credit report after it was requested.
Unfortunately, the goal of reducing identity theft might have created the opportunity for phony websites. The Federal Trade Commission has identified more than 130 imposter web sites that may be trying to mislead consumers by charging a fee or even collecting personal information that can be used in future identity thefts. The FTC has sent warning letters to these sites.
Many of the imposter web sites look very similar to AnnualCreditReport.com, the official website established by the federal government to allow consumers to obtain their credit reports online. In order to take advantage of consumer typos or misspellings, many of the imposter web sites have Internet addresses with only a letter or punctuation mark differing from the official website. One example of a site that may be attempting to confuse consumers is
When asked for consumer tips on using the AnnualCreditReport.com website, Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit advocacy group, said:
"Our tip is that consumers are better off calling the toll free number (877.322.8228) than using annualcreditreport.com to order their free reports. We also advise people to stagger their requests, ordering one credit report now, a second four months from now, and the third at the eight month mark, and then start over doing the same thing next year. That way, they are looking at their reports throughout the year. But if someone is in the market for credit - say they are applying for apartment rentals, getting a car or home loan, refinancing, getting insurance - they should order all three at one time."
Although there have been complaints, the FTC defends the program stating that many of the problems were the result of consumers inaccurately answering security questions. Consumers must verify personal information, such as credit card account numbers, the name of their mortgage lenders and/or the amount of their mortgage payment. Once these questions are answered correctly, consumers are able to gain instant online access to their credit report.
According to the Washington Post, Joel Winston, associate director of the FTC Practices Division said:
"We feel pretty strongly about that issue. It is important credit bureaus get enough information so they are not sending out reports to the wrong people. That would be a disaster."
Consumer advocates also maintain that it is better that the website is cautious and reject inaccurate information in order to protect consumers. Moreover, consumer advocates urge Americans to take advantage of free credit reports in spite of the problems. Credit reports and credit histories are used by potential employers and landlords as well as lenders to determine credit worthiness.
More information about this topic, including consumer tips and precautions, can be found on the FTC's website.
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