Monitoring your credit reports is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself from criminals who want to shoplift your identity. And starting Sept. 1, everyone in the USA will be eligible to order a free credit report from the three major credit-reporting agencies.
But be careful. The Internet is littered with promotions for "free" credit reports, and many are back-door efforts to sell credit-monitoring services and other products, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Last week, Experian, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies, agreed to pay $950,000 to settle charges that it deceived consumers into signing up for its credit-monitoring service by offering free credit reports. The FTC said Experian's Internet sites, www.freecreditreport.com and www.consumerinfo.com, failed to adequately disclose that consumers who ordered their credit reports would automatically be charged $79.95.
The FTC settlement with Experian doesn't resolve an ongoing problem: "impostor sites" that attempt to hijack consumers seeking to order free credit reports.
These sites use misspellings and sound-alike names to misdirect consumers to sites unrelated to the government-mandated site. The FTC has sent letters to 130 impostor sites warning them that attempts to mislead consumers are illegal.
Researchers for the World Privacy Forum, a consumer education organization, found 112 sites in June that were using some combination or close spelling of "annual credit report."
Some of the sites asked for Social Security numbers, birth dates and other sensitive information, the World Privacy Forum report said. Others directed consumers to sites that sell identity theft or other credit-related products and services, the report said.
A few contained links to pornographic sites.
Consumers land on impostor sites in two primary ways: by mistyping the name of the official Internet site, or by using a search engine and clicking on the wrong result, the report said.
Watching your step
If you're planning to exercise your right to order free credit reports, there are several ways to protect yourself:
• Link to the legitimate site through the Federal Trade Commission's Internet site, www.ftc.gov. When you go to www.ftc.gov, you'll see two buttons that link to the official site, says Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
• Be wary of any site that promises a free credit report, then asks for your credit card number. That may be an indication that you've landed on an impostor site.
• Don't respond or reply to e-mails, pop-up ads or phone calls that claim to come from www.annualcreditreport.com or one of the credit-reporting agencies. These may be scams seeking personal information.
• If you're uncomfortable with Internet security, consider ordering your credit reports by phone or mail. To order by phone, call 877-322-8228. To order by mail, print out the request form from www.annualcreditreport.com, fill it out and send it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
Free credit reports were mandated by a federal law enacted in 2003. The program has been rolled out across the country since December, starting with the West Coast. East Coast residents will be eligible to order their free reports starting Sept. 1.
The law allows you to obtain one annual credit report from each of the credit-reporting agencies. You can order them all at once or stagger your requests so you can review a report every three months.
"This is an important right that American consumers have," Parnes says. "We want them to be very careful when they're exercising it."
Sandra Block covers personal finance for USA TODAY. Her Your Money column appears Tuesdays. Click here for an index of Your Money columns. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.