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Sunday, December 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Credit reports should be easier now

Times consumer-affairs Reporter

How to get free credit reports


Consumers can get a free credit report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion every 12 months — not every calendar year — so if you order one in December, you can't get another free one until next December.

Remember: There is only one official place authorized by the federal government to provide the free reports — the Central Source, a joint venture among the three credit bureaus to process requests.

When you order your free credit reports from Central Source, you will be asked whether you want to buy your credit score. If you say yes, you will pay $6.95 for your score offered by Equifax, and slightly less for scores calculated by the other two credit bureaus. But the credit report is free.

Here are the three ways to order your credit reports from Central Source:

• Online at www.annualcreditreport.com

• By phone, toll-free, at 877-322-8228

• By mail at Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. When you order by mail, you must mail a request form available online at: www.annualcreditreport.com

Washington consumers should expect fewer technical glitches but more product pitches and scams to dodge this year when they request copies of their free annual credit reports.

Consumer advocates and the Federal Trade Commission say the process is smoother and at least a little easier than last year, when state residents were among the first eligible for the free reports from the three major credit bureaus.

"It appears to be finally working," said Megan Blanck-Weiss of WashPIRG, the Washington State Public Interest Research Group.

Federal law now requires every consumer to be given access to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the national credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

When the new program launched on the West Coast last year, the system was overloaded with requests. Some consumers said they were blocked from getting their reports online, and others requesting reports by phone or regular mail said the reports never showed up. Many complained that the process was confusing and more difficult than it needed to be.

Many of the technical bugs have been fixed as the program rolled out across the rest of the country later in the year, and complaints have tapered off, according to consumer advocates, the credit bureaus and the FTC.

Yet confusion persists, made worse by scores of impostor Web sites that have popped up this year to trick people into providing their personal information or paying for the reports.

It's hard to gauge how widespread the problems have been.

The credit bureaus and the FTC won't say exactly how many consumers have gotten free reports in the past year. Nor will they discuss the number of complaints, other than saying it's a small percentage of the millions who have ordered reports.

A Washington Post report found that the FTC had received nearly 2,100 complaints through August, most of them from consumers who hadn't been able to successfully order their reports for a variety of reasons.

Even if some of the bumps have been smoothed out, new hazards have emerged that consumers should watch for this year:

Beware bad typing. Impostor Web sites take advantage of sound-alike names, typing, spelling or punctuation errors to fool consumers into thinking they are at the only official Web site for free reports: www.annualcreditreport.com.

Some trick people into paying for a report that's free or buying a service they don't need. Other sites collect personal information to sell.

At one point last spring, the official Web site was listed six pages down in a Google search, said Norma Garcia, senior attorney in the West Coast office of Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumers organization. Consumer advocates suggest typing the Web address above directly into your browser.

Another consumer group identified 233 fake Web sites last spring using some variation of the words "annual credit report." The FTC last summer sent letters to more than 130 of the sites telling them it's illegal to mislead consumers.

Free means free. Some consumers say they're confused about whether they have to buy their credit scores, credit-monitoring services or other things to get their free credit report.

Your credit reports — the multipage reports with detailed information about your credit history, accounts and more — are free.

You will be asked whether you want to buy your credit scores, but that is an option, not a requirement to get your free reports. Credit scores are numbers from about 300 to 925 that lenders, employers, landlords and others use to decide whether to extend credit, accept a new tenant, even make a job offer. The higher your scores, the better your credit standing, and the better the rates you'll be quoted for loans, insurance and other purposes.

"If you have to buy anything, you're at the wrong place," Garcia said.

Prepare for sales pitches, even when you're at the right place. The credit bureaus make multiple attempts to sign you up for additional fee-based services.

One credit bureau took its marketing efforts a step too far. A subsidiary of Experian was running a Web site with a sound-alike name that deceptively marketed "free" credit reports — and automatically enrolled consumers in a credit-monitoring service without adequately disclosing that it cost $79.95 a year unless the service was canceled within 30 days, the FTC said.

The subsidiary settled FTC charges in August and paid the agency $950,000.

"Even if you're doing it right, there are all these 'opportunities' to be upsold," said Ed Mierzwinski with the national office of WashPIRG. "These companies have arrogant disregard for complying with the law and treating consumers like people."

Some advocates recommend you "call, don't click" to avoid the online hazards. Calling prevents getting misdirected to impostor sites or having to wade through credit-bureau advertising.

"The easiest way is to pick up the phone," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego.

Most complaints analyzed by her organization are about the online process.

One caution: The automated phone system for ordering reports is sometimes stumped by long last names or strong accents, Dixon said. In that case, ordering by mail might work better.

But the credit bureaus say the online system works fine for most people and offers the additional benefit of letting consumers instantly dispute errors. That allows the bureaus to contact the creditor and more quickly resolve the problem, often within days instead of weeks, said Maxine Sweet, Experian's vice president of public education.

Whichever method you choose, consumer advocates urge you to get your reports.

"Some people just don't want to face it — it's like weighing yourself," Dixon said.

It's an important tool in preventing identity theft, she said, and in understanding how creditors and others make decisions about you.

Some consumers are discovering discrepancies in what's reported in their three credit reports. One man called Garcia's Consumers Union office in the midst of trying to refinance his mortgage when he discovered a 73-point difference in his credit scores being reported by the three bureaus.

"That can make a big difference in whether you get credit and at what rate," Garcia said. "This is one of the results we hoped for — that people would begin to see these sorts of things and question them. It's really the beginning of consumers taking power over their credit information."

Jolayne Houtz: jhoutz@seattletimes.com; 206-464-3122

For more information about the program or to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, go to: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/freereports/index.html

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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