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A reader thought he was getting a free credit report, but he was actually signing up with a credit repair agency. Let's be careful out there, folks.

Here’s a question I recently received with several interesting elements, including free credit scores, checking out companies online, and paid credit repair. Check it out:

I recently was looking online trying to find out more information about my credit score and report. I thought I was filling out information to get my report, but later got a call from a Lexington Law paralegal, who told me I had requested information about fixing my credit. They said they’d pull up my report free.

I’d read an article you’d written about getting free reports and that companies doing it are typically scams, so I was very hesitant to give out my information. After looking at their website and feeling more comfortable about them as a legitimate business, I gave my information.

To my surprise they DID give me a free credit score from TransUnion AND an estimate for my FICO score. I was so surprised that I got that information from them. They did ask if I was interested in their credit repair services, to which I replied it is not a good time. They also showed me how I could log in to their website and see the negative items on my report.

Is this too good to be true? Should I be expecting any negative effects on my score? They said it was a soft credit check and wouldn’t affect my score.
— Ryan

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this email. Let’s start at the beginning:

I thought I was filling out information to get my report, but later got a call from a Lexington Law paralegal, who told me I had requested information about fixing my credit.

If you think you’re learning about credit reports, but are actually asking to be contacted about credit repair, you need to rethink the way you’re surfing the Web.

Be careful, Ryan. You don’t have to provide your phone number to learn about credit reports, and you need to be careful when talking to for-profit companies about credit repair.

If you want information about things that affect your credit report and score, read about it here in posts like “3 Steps to Improve Your Credit History” and “18 Tips to Give Your Credit Score a Boost.” You can also check out information from the Federal Trade Commission with PDF downloads like “Building a Better Credit Report.”

Next:.

I’d read an article you’d written about getting free reports and that companies doing that are typically scams, so I was very hesitant to give out my information. After looking at their website and feeling more comfortable about them as a legitimate business, I gave my information.

I’ve warned in the past that companies routinely use the offer of free credit scores to get you to sign up for other credit services. But I’ve never said companies offering free reports are scams. You can, and should, get free credit reports from the only place they’re actually free: AnnualCreditReport.com.

When it comes to checking out a company, “looking at their website” isn’t how you determine if they’re legitimate. Anyone can build a legitimate-looking website.

Instead, put this into a search engine: “Complaints (the company).” When I searched, “Complaints Lexington Law,” for example, here are a few of the links that popped up:

While reading reviews isn’t definitive — anybody can say anything about any company — it’s better than just looking at their site. And I wonder if you’d have felt so sanguine about Lexington Law had you visited the links above.

Next:

To my surprise they DID give me a free credit score from TransUnion AND an estimate for my FICO score. I was so surprised that I got that information from them.

That’s no surprise.

Many nonprofit credit counseling agencies will do at no charge what Lexington Law did: look up your credit history and give you an idea of what’s in there, as well as basic advice. You can find a list of member agencies at websites for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA).

As for credit scores, you can also find them free at sites like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame. But nobody I’m aware of gives away FICO scores — the one most commonly used by lenders. To get a FICO score, you’ll have to pay $19.95, or sign up for expensive credit monitoring services.

Several sites provide calculators that estimate your FICO score, but because they don’t use your actual credit file, they’re not all that useful.

And now for Ryan’s final question:

Should I be expecting any negative effects on my score? They said it was a soft credit check and wouldn’t affect my score.

What Lexington Law told you was true: Soft credit checks like this one won’t lower your credit score.

The bottom line

I congratulate Ryan on trying to learn about credit. It’s a good idea and everyone should do it.

What nobody should do, however, is pay any company to repair a damaged credit history. For reasons, see “Why You Should Ignore Credit Repair Ads + 3 Steps to Fix Your Credit Free.”

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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