I saw the ad below recently on late-night television. Perhaps you have seen it too:
I know Ben Stein more for his comedy than his economic commentaries. He's also in some funny cable TV service commercials with Shaq. So, I have nothing against Stein. Everyone has to make a living.
I don't know anything about Filbert, the squirrel in the ad. I have nothing against Filbert either.
At first view, the ad seemed harmless enough. It is wise for consumers to know their credit score, since many purchases depend upon having good credit. To learn more, I visited the FreeScore.com site.
That's when things really got squirrely.
The site is easy to read and easy to navigate. There are huge buttons on the home page to start the registration process to get those free credit scores. Consumers can get "free" credit scores from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion:
The above page copy also inform users that they can get their credit reports when ordering their free credit scores. Further down the page (out of view when the page first loads) is as a huge button for consumers to click to view a sample report compiled with information from the three credit reporting agencies. A sample report is a good thing to view before registering. A more friendly page design would place that sample button further up the page so it is easier to see.
Now, I already know my credit score, so I didn't register for the FreeScore.com service. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you will see tiny text that is easy to miss, especially if you clicked on any of the large buttons near the top of the page. So, I've repeated the tiny text here:
"FreeScore.com is not affiliated with the annual free credit report program. Under a new Federal law, you have the right to receive a copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies. To request your free annual report under law, you must go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
Translation: while you can get credit reports at the FreeScore.com site, they aren't free. The credit scores are free but the credit reports have a monthly fee. The tiny text explains why there is a monthly fee:
"FreeScore provides you with the tools you need to access and monitor your financial/credit information through the program's credit reporting and monitoring benefits. FreeScore and its benefit providers are not credit repair service providers and do not receive fees for such services, nor are they credit clinics, credit repair or credit services organizations or businesses, as defined by federal and state law. Credit information provided by TransUnion Interactive, Inc."
Translation: the site is operated by TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting agencies. FreeScore will help you monitor your credit scores and credit reports, but it won't help you fix them should something bad happen. You are on your own if you need to remove errors in your credit reports, or if you are already an identity-theft victim and thieves have made fraudulent purchases affecting your credit scores and reports.So, if the credit reports at FreeScore aren't free, how much do they cost? In my opinion, a better design would have displayed the price along with the credit report offer on the home page. Instead, the consumer has to hunt for the price information, which appears on the FreeScore registration page below. The price is in small type in the right column under OFFER DETAILS:
I've repeated the tiny copy here so it is easier to read:
"Simply click "View Scores" on the next page to activate your FreeScore trial membership and claim your 3-in-1 Credit Profile and Triple Credit Score. After your 7-day FREE trial period it's just $19.95 per month for FreeScore. Remember, you can call FreeScore toll-free at 1-800-316-8824 within the first 7 days to cancel, and you will not be charged/debited."
Translation: you get free credit scores only during the seven (7) day trial period. After that, charges apply if you don't cancel your trial membership, which automatically signed up for a credit monitoring service costing almost $20 per month. The trial membership period is awfully short, too.
This offer by FreeScore.com reminded me a lot of the pitch by FreeCreditReport.com, a site that pitches free credit reports but enrolls consumers in a credit monitoring program with a monthly fee if you don't read the tiny text and cancel. Yesterday's post discussed the new Credit Report disclosure rules mandated by the FTC. The FreeScore.com site never pitches free credit reports, so I guess that TransUnion believes that they don't have to comply with the new disclosure rules since they aren't selling free credit reports at the site.
In my opinion, the FreeScore.com site is the same as the FreeCreditReport.com site. Both advertise X (e.g., get something for free) but really offer Y (credit monitoring for a monthly free) and place the important details in small print rather than say so upfront in easier to read type. Both sites use the auto-opt-in method: the user is enrolled in the credit monitoring service unless they cancel in time. To me, this is a sleezy marketing approach. The old "buyer beware" advice definitely applies here.
In my opinion, FreeScore.com is expensive since the price includes credit monitoring and not credit resolution services. And, the FreeScore monthly fee of $19.95 is higher than the FreeCreditReport.com monthly fee of $14.95. So, maybe the cost of those "free" credit scores is baked into the higher monthly credit monitoring fee.
Is FreeScore for you? That's a decision only you can make. You know your credit situation best. Having good credit is critical and monitoring your credit reports is wise to ensure their accuracy. If you are a victim of identity theft and fraud, then monitoring your credit reports for fraudulent purchases is critical, but getting credit resolution service is equally important.
My advice: shop around and always read the FINE PRINT at a Web site; especially sites offering freebies and/or credit monitoring services. Know the limitations of the credit monitoring service you are considering. Be an informed consumer.