The old saying has it that you don't get something for nothing. Lee Brubaker says she found that out the hard way when she tried to get her free credit reports.
A law approved by Congress in 2003 entitles all Americans to one free credit report a year from each of the three major bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
The law was designed to give people a chance to dispute negative information on their record, and also to serve as a check against identity theft. A sudden high balance on a seldom-used credit card, for example, could be a tipoff to unauthorized use.
Brubaker, a Los Angeles photographer, said she decided to request her free report specifically to look for any telltale clues of identity theft. Instead, she said she got a crash course in how tough it can be to request the free report.
After spending hours plugging personal information into credit bureau websites, Brubaker said, one site logged her off mid-request -- and it wouldn't let her back in. She managed to get her report from two other credit bureaus, she said, but only because she was persistent and was adept at navigating the websites.
"This took a full day's daylight," she said. "Things need to be changed so that the law is actually useful and not an exercise in futility."
There are two major complaints about the free credit reports. One is that people who go online are hit with one or more pitches to buy supplemental services. For example, while the actual credit report is free, the credit score -- which can determine whether you get credit and, if so, at what interest rate -- is available only at an additional cost.
The other complaint centers on so-called impostor sites that look like the real thing, but aren't.
Consumers can access the three major credit bureaus through a single website, www.annualcreditreport.com. But a study by the World Privacy Forum found that anyone who types in the address incorrectly when trying to get to the free site could be steered instead to an impostor site that tries to sell credit services.
As of last week, there were 96 known impostor sites, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.
At least 28 of these impostor sites were operated by Experian, Dixon added. The rest are operated by pay-per-click companies that lure consumers to fee-charging websites that may not be secure, she said.
"It ends up being a really bad, no-win situation for consumers," she said. "If they make a slight typo, they run into all these problematic marketing situations."
Experian, however, said it did not purchase the look-alike Internet domains to sell products, but mainly to make sure that they would not be inhabited by "phishing" and "spoofing" sites that are aimed at getting personal information from consumers to engage in identity theft, said Donald Girard, vice president of public affairs for Experian in Costa Mesa.
Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Center in San Diego believes the detours to impostor sites by Experian and the pay-per-click companies are intentional and aimed at deterring consumers from getting the free reports that they're due.
Meanwhile, she notes that several of the credit bureaus advertise their paid services prominently to those trying to get free reports. And some induce hapless consumers into getting rafts of marketing materials when they visit the free site by including "click-through" prompts that opt them into advertising, unless they know to check the unchecked box.
"This is a pretty sorry situation and it calls for a Federal Trade Commission investigation on a number of fronts," she said. "I definitely think the credit bureaus are doing this on purpose."
David Rubinger, spokesman for Atlanta-based Equifax, counters that the bureaus are not trying to make the sites difficult -- just secure.
"Security has been our biggest concern all along," he said. "The authentication system is critically important."
He said that those who have bad luck with the website have two other options: They can phone, or write, to get free credit reports. The toll-free phone number -- (877) 322-8228 -- may be the best option for those who aren't computer savvy, he noted.
However, people who find that some of their identifying information is inaccurate must write, he said. That's because both the website and the phone service are fully automated. There's no way to get through the system when some of the identifying information is not correct, he said.
The address for mail inquiries is:
Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
Kathy M. Kristof, author of "Investing 101" and "Taming the Tuition Tiger," welcomes your comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters or phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail email@example.com. For previous columns, visit latimes.com/kristof.