Not all credit reports are free, beware of websites that charge monthly fees

PHOENIX - You may know you're entitled to three free credit reports each year.

But there is still some confusion over how to get them, and how to avoid online sites that charge for those reports.

I'm talking about AnnualCreditReport.com, a site where you can, by law, get three free credit reports each year, one from each of the credit reporting agencies.

That way you can check for ID theft and if accounts are opened in your name.

But nearly 10 years after AnnualCreditReport.com was set up, a lot of internet sites are advertising "free" credit reports that have strings.

That can lead to monthly payments you didn't want. It's confusing a lot of people.

One readers e-mail is typical of what I see: "I went online the other day to get my free credit report. Not sure how I got a company that charged me $1. Somewhere in the letter, which I didn't read, I signed up for credit monitoring unless I told them within 7 days that I didn't need it. Well, today there was a $29.95 charge on my credit card. All I wanted were my 3 free credit reports."

First off, you should read everything closely. But really, this confusion shouldn't even be an issue.

Back in 2005, the Federal Trade Commission fined a different site, freecreditreport.com, more than a million dollars accusing them of using deceptive tactics.

The FTC sent warning letters to 18 websites and many of them had "free" in their names.

The FTC even started requiring a notice that should say "required by law ... you have the right to a free credit report from annualcreditreport.com." There should be a phone number listed as well.

On websites it's required to be on the top "of each page that mentions free credit report."

So, I went back to freecreditreport.com.

There is a disclaimer about charges if you don't cancel. And there's a link to annualcreditreport.com.

But I didn't see the exact wording in the regulation. A spokesperson for Experian, which owns freecreditreport.com says:

"I can tell you that all of our sites are in full compliance with applicable laws. I checked the link you sent and saw there was reference to the annual credit report with a link to the site. It's at the top of the page. If I can assist with the story in any other way, please let me know. Experian goes to great lengths in its educational outreach to publicize annualcreditreport.com."

Folks, bottom line, if you want a free report, and that's it's AnnualCreditReport.com.

And remember, it's only the report you get. If you want a credit score, it's going to cost you.

E-mail me with any consumer problem you have or "like" my Let Joe Know Facebook page and tell me about it there.

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