credit cards

'Free' credit reports

Wednesday, March 24
Posted 4 p.m.

Bankrate reporter Leslie McFadden contributed this entry.

Soon it will be a little easier to spot the "free" credit report advertisements for products that aren't really free. On April 2, new disclosure requirements for such ads will take effect.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, most of which took effect in February, required the Federal Trade Commission to establish a rule that addresses deceptive advertising of free credit reports.

The only authorized source for free credit reports under federal law is AnnualCreditReport.com, but advertisements for "free" credit reports that are connected to fee-based products blur the distinction between the official source of free credit reports and commercial Web sites. In comments on the proposed rule issued in October, many consumers claimed they paid "various sums of money for unwanted services when they attempted to obtain what they thought was their free annual file disclosure," according to the FTC.

Last month the FTC issued a rule that will take effect in just over a week.

Among the changes: Commercial Web sites that offer free credit reports must disclose the following at the top of each Web page:

THIS NOTICE IS REQUIRED BY LAW. Read more at FTC.GOV.
You have the right to a free credit report from AnnualCreditreport.com
or 877-322-8228, the ONLY authorized source under federal law.

The Web sites must provide a clickable button that reads, "Take me to the authorized source" and operational links to AnnualCreditReport.com and FTC.GOV.

Consumers will no longer see any advertisements for other products on AnnualCreditReport.com until after they have obtained their free credit reports. Americans are entitled to one free copy from each major credit bureau once every 12 months.

Disclosure rules for radio and television advertisements take effect on Sept. 1. Read the rest of the disclosure rules (PDF) at FTC.gov.

Will the rule make a difference?

It is hoped the new disclosure requirements will help people realize when they're on a Web site other than the official site for free credit reports. Hint: If you're asked for a credit card number, you are ordering some sort of service or product, and not your free annual credit report.

Credit scores cost extra and are not included with the federally mandated report.

The delay of advertising on AnnualCreditReport.com until the report has been delivered should also cut down on the number of people who accidentally buy what they thought was their free report.

Or perhaps not. The domain name for the government Web site is unfortunately not as intuitive as, say, Freecreditreport.com, a commercial site operated by Experian and promoted by singing pirate commercials.

What's your take? Do you think the rule went far enough or was necessary in the first place?

Questions? Comments? E-mail plastic_rap@bankrate.com.

Read all of the Plastic Rap blog posts.

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