In Search of the Elusive $11 Credit Report

You know how important your credit is. From jobs to credit cards, from insurance to mortgages, your credit touches nearly every aspect of your financial life.

That’s why the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was amended years ago to require the “big three” consumer reporting companies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – to allow you a free copy of your credit history once a year. You get it by ignoring the commercials on TV and going to annualcreditreport.com.

This is only fair. If everyone from a potential employer to your insurance company is going to make decisions and set rates based on your credit history, you darn sure have both the right and obligation to look it over at least once a year.

But what if you want to look at it more often? There are some circumstances in which you can get additional free reports. From the FTC website

You’re entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, and you ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company. You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft.

If you’ve used your free reports and don’t fall into the above categories, however, you’ll have to pay for additional copies. But the law also sets the maximum fee for that: $11.

And that’s where this story starts. Because a law that limits the charge for a credit report to $11 doesn’t do you much good if the companies tasked with providing it hide it instead. And that’s exactly what you’ll encounter when you try to find an $11 credit report from any of the big credit reporting bureaus. What you’ll find instead is up-sell: a confusing plethora of product pitches from credit monitoring services to report/score bundles.

In the video below, I show you on-camera proof of just how hard it is for even a credit expert to find the inexpensive report you’re entitled to. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more.

Follow-up

As I closed the story above, I promised to tell you what the FTC had to say when I confronted them about the difficulty of obtaining what credit reporting agencies are obligated to provide.

I started by calling the FTC and talking to a media spokeswoman. I described the results of my report, and even provided a link to the script for the story above. She told me that she’d check it out, but the FTC wouldn’t acknowledge whether they would do an investigation. I didn’t expect to hear anything back, and I didn’t. But I did follow up again. Following is the email chain…

Me: On 1/24/12, we spoke about a news story we shot regarding the difficulty of finding an $11 credit score on the big three websites. To refresh your memory, here’s a link to our script. … Based on the script above, can you please provide a comment?

FTC: Unfortunately, there are no specific requirements under the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) as to how the CRAs (Credit Reporting Agencies) market their products and services, except with respect to the free annual file disclosures that can be obtained from annualcreditreport.com.

Me: So I take it that the FTC is fine with what these guys are doing and won’t be conducting an investigation or otherwise making it easier for consumers to find an $11 report?

FTC: The FCRA does not address the fact pattern the reporter described. Staff does not comment on whether or not certain conduct is acceptable or not and cannot opine on what the Commission may or may not do.

Me: Thanks for the additional comment. We’ll use it. But just so you know, this part of the FTC’s mission statement will go into my final story:

“Our Mission
To prevent business practices that are anticompetitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers…”

I’m the reporter in the story, and it’s my opinion – and I suspect many other people’s – that hiding the least expensive option for a credit report behind a wall of up-sell is most definitely deceptive and unfair to consumers.

If there’s someone there able to comment on that, we’d love to include it.

There was no response from the FTC to the final email.

How to find cheap reports

If you’ve used your quota or otherwise don’t qualify for a free report, here’s a step-by-step guide that will steer you to the cheapest options – at least until the reporting agencies shuffle the deck again.

TransUnion

It took our professional credit counselor 11 minutes and 5 seconds to find the cheap option. Here’s the shortest route we found to get there…

  1. Click the tiny “Site Map” link at the very bottom of TransUnion.com. (It’s in the middle, sort of.)
  2. In the leftmost column (labeled “Personal”), under the section header “Credit Disputes, Alerts and Freezes,” click “Credit Reports and Disclosures.”
  3. On the right is a “Convenient online services” box with a link to “Purchase a TransUnion Credit Report.”
  4. This leads you to a form to create an account, after which there is a checkbox trying to upsell you again – it says you can get your “personal score” for $9.95. Skip it and you’ll get the option to purchase a “personal credit report” for $11.

Equifax

It took our pro 7 minutes and 22 seconds to find the basic option here. Here’s the route around the front-page up-sell to the $11 report…

  1. Go to Equifax.com and move your cursor over “Equifax Products” in the upper left, which will present a drop-down menu. Click the last link, “Compare Products.”
  2. Here you’ll see a handy list of all the junk you didn’t ask for compared side-by-side. What you want isn’t even visible as an option yet – click the red “Single Use Products” tab.
  3. Now you’ll see four more options ranging from $15 to $40, which still don’t include just the basic report. Scroll down and find the $9.95 “Identity Report,” which is the cheapest option we found.

Experian

Our pro gave up after 15 minutes of hunting for the $11 option. Given the number of links on the front page – including Experian’s highlighted product, which claims to provide your credit report and score for $1, but will auto-bill you $17.95 a month unless you cancel within a week – we can’t blame him. But in terms of the number of steps and clicks, this may actually be the easiest CRA to navigate once you know where to look…

  1. On Experian.com, in the bottom left “Products” column, click the first option: credit report.
  2. You’ll get a side-by-side comparison that, unlike Equifax, includes the cheap option on the first page, instead of at the bottom of a second page. On the right you’ll see a link to order a $10 “Experian credit check.”

The bottom line

When I started as a consumer reporter more than 20 years ago, you couldn’t see your credit report at any price. After years of outcry from consumer advocates, it became possible to pay to see your report. After years more under the spotlight, Congress relented and changed the law to allow for one free report and unlimited cheap ones.

But free credit reports aren’t easy to find when credit reporting agencies are allowed to heavily advertise deceptive websites like freecreditreport.com. And cheap credit reports won’t do you any good if you have to wade through a maze of up-sell to find them.

The FTC’s mission statement is to prevent deceptive practices. In at least this instance, I think they’re failing in their mission.

What do you think? Sound off on our Facebook page. You can bet there are credit reporting agencies and people in Washington who will see it.

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