The Hidden Costs of "Free" Credit Reports

FreeScore.com... FreeCreditReport.com... FreeTripleScore.com...

With these names, it's hard not to think you're receiving a truly free credit report when you sign up on their websites.

And even though some are endorsed by celebrities such as Ben Stein or have memorable jingles, credit report websites are causing headaches for many consumers. It's become so much of a problem that the Federal Trade Commission has put a link prominently on its homepage to help educate consumers about the hidden costs and unwanted services of many credit websites.

So what's the catch, and how much can it cost you?

The secret of these sites is that your credit report is free, but checking your report also enrolls you automatically in their credit monitoring services... for a fee. That is, unless, you call to cancel within the initial trial period (usually one week).

Once enrolled, fees run anywhere from $12.95 a month to as much as $29.95. It may not seem like much, but over the course of a year these amounts add up to anywhere from $156 to $360. When only wanting to check their credit report and expecting no cost, the unforeseen charges have many consumers seeing red.

In fact, the Better Business Bureau has received more than 11,000 complaints concerning FreeCreditReport.com, which is actually owned by credit report agency Experian. So how can you avoid seeing an unexpected charge just for checking your credit?

First, there is only one website that offers a truly free credit report with no strings attached. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only authorized source for free reports under federal law.

AnnualCreditReport.com allows you access to the reports of each of the big three credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) once per year. You can choose to view all three reports at once, or stagger them over the course of the year in order to have a more constant view of your credit.

There are also a couple of common sense rules you can follow. First, any site that sends you solicitations for a credit report or credit score is likely to charge you for the information. AnnualCreditReport.com makes it clear that it will never email solicitations for their free service.

Most importantly, be sure to read the fine print if any credit website asks for credit card information. Receiving your free credit report doesn't require a credit card whatsoever. Having to put in credit card information is a warning sign that the website is likely to sign you up for their credit monitoring service after a trial period.

For more information about obtaining a free credit report, visit the Federal Trade Commission website here.

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