Saturday, January 24

FreeCreditReport.com: As free as it claims to be

Moolanomy recently posted a very upset piece entitled FreeCreditReport.com is NOT Free.


Very incensed, he wrote that it cost him quite a bit of money. He didn't notice the charges on his credit card bill for a few months. But, then, he wasn't looking for them: He was under the impression that it was a free site, not a free trial offer.


He admitted to giving the site his credit card information, but says it wasn't made clear why it was needed.


And I'd like to stop there for a moment...


Here's a basic rule: If you're not clear why a site needs your credit card information is needed, don't give it out.


If you're confused, stop typing and find the "Terms and Conditions." If you're still confused, open a new window and go back to the company's homepage to review the information presented there.


If, after all that, you're still not clear why you have to give your credit card information, you really don't want to sign up.


It's either a scam or you've misconstrued a free trial offer as simply "free." Whichever it is, it's clearly not what you wanted.


Just remember: No free site would ever ask you for your credit card information. Assume that, if you give your credit card information, there's a good chance it will be charged.


But for a moment let's disregard all that. Moolanomy is basically complaining about the lack of transparency on the website. He felt the site wasn't clear that it was selling a product, not providing one free of charge (and free of contingencies).


Personally, I recall the site being pretty straightforward when I signed up about four months ago. I had to read through a few paragraphs, explaining that it was a trial offer, the length of the offer, the charges that would be issued if I didn't cancel, and cancellation policy.


Since then, it's added a front-page disclaimer: "When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple AdvantageSM Credit Monitoring. If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership."


To be fair to Moolanomy, he didn't sign up recently. From the way he phrases it, this all happened at least a year ago. Over time, businesses refine websites, as they get feedback from customers. So the site may have been more opaque when he signed up.


In my experience, however, bigger businesses strive to be clear. Since this is a subsidiary of Experian, a well-known organization, I tend to assume it will follow that tradition. At the very least, by being crystal clear and upfront in the terms, the companies are able to resolutely stick to their no-refund policy.


Still, it's also worth mentioning that my recollection may be biased. I signed up for this service through Inbox Dollars. I was doing trial offers for money -- in this case, $8 -- so I was well aware of the fact that this item was only free for a 7-day window.


Of course, all this is speculation. I don't know what Moolanomy saw or didn't see -- what was or wasn't on the site when he signed up.


Honestly, my best guess is that he mistook FreeCreditReport.com for www.annualcreditreport.com. ACR is the site you go to for your once-per-year free credit report from each of the three credit agencies. But FreeCreditReport.com advertises on many sites, offering a free credit report. Given the similarity in promise and name, it's easy to see how confusion would occur.


I want to be clear: My disagreeing with Moolanomy isn't the same as my endorsing FreeCreditReport.com.


There are hidden dangers in sites like this:

  • It promotes the idea that you need someone to monitor your credit for you.
  • There's the danger of getting charged instead of getting a free trial.


Okay, the first point: Just send off for your credit report. You send a request to each agency. This saves you the worry of cancelling a trial offer, and it gets you more actively involved in your credit.


The second point: I don't like the company's message. You don't need someone to monitor your credit for you. If you choose to pay for that service, that's up to you. But there are plenty of resources to help you keep an eye out. Credit card companies are pretty diligent about calling to check on strange activity. Many now also offer you an approximated credit score. If that score changes significantly, you can contact the agencies and find out why. Overall, I just don't like the idea of being so passive about your credit.


Finally, and perhaps the most dangerous, there is the possibility that you will get a charge on your card instead of a free trial offer.


FreeCreditReport.com is actually run by ConsumerInfo.com, which is an Experian company. In and of itself, that fact isn't a big deal. What is a big deal is that there are several other companies that both run. And most of them are offered right alongside FreeCreditReport.com on various rewards programs.


These are the other companies I could find:


  • Credit Check Total (also Credit Check Basic and Credit Check Premium)
  • ProtectMyID.com
  • Triple Alert
  • CreditExpert.com
  • NationalScore.com
  • NationalScoreindex.com
  • Credit Manager
  • PersonalCreditIndex.com
  • CreditMatters.com
  • ExperianDirect.com
  • EyeMyCredit.com (it offers Triple Advantage, like FreeCreditReport.com).

Because of so many different names, it's pretty easy to try to sign up for two free trial offers from the same parent company.


And that's a big deal because, according to the "Terms and Conditions"

Please note, if you have ever been a member and received a free trial, [ConsumeInfo.com] may refuse to give you another free trial offer. Returning members will be billed the membership fee immediately upon renewal.


So does this mean that you'll be simply refused? Or does it mean that your credit card will be charged instantly if you've already had a free trial?


Honestly, I don't know. I've read and re-read these lines. Personally, I think it could go either way.


All I can say for sure is that it seems like a plausible way to worm in a credit charge. When you call to complain, the company simply needs to point out this is in the "Terms and Conditions" and then stand by its no-refunds policy.


Maybe the company isn't really that devious. Or maybe it is. In the end, I decided not to take the risk.


If, after all this, you're angry just like Moolanomy and are sure they're out to trick you... Well, yeah, of course they are!


It's the most obvious play in the book, and companies tend to be pretty upfront about their intentions. They state everything in the "Terms and Conditions." If you choose not to read them thoroughly -- and I am certainly guilty of this at times -- you're tacitly accepting the consequences of the inaction.


For anyone not paying attention before now: Businesses want something from you. They're out to make money, and yours will do just fine. On the other side, you're trying to get something from the businesses, whether it's a free credit report, a sample of a product or making money from a rewards program.


You're both using each other. You are hoping that you can sign up, get what you came for, and cancel in time to not be charged. The company is hoping that you become a convert to whatever it's selling -- or, at the very least, forget to cancel for a month or two.


Finally, if you aren't clear on a particular item in an offer? Don't sign up. Definitely don't give the company your credit card information. Wait until you can get ahold of a customer service representative and get your questions cleared up.


Informed consumerism -- even on "free" things -- is key to being frugal. And to avoiding nasty surprises on your credit card bill.

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