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Credit bureaus make it tricky to buy a copy of your own report

The websites of two of the three agencies seem more determined to get visitors to sign up for their ongoing monitoring services.

November 26, 2010|David Lazarus

Tony Cabral is the kind of consumer who makes a habit of checking his credit files at least twice a year.

"I just want to be safe," he told me. "I want to know how my credit looks."

These days, though, it's become surprisingly difficult to stay on top of this most basic of consumer needs, an especially timely concern as hordes of Black Friday shoppers break out the plastic in search of holiday deals.

Consumers are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three leading credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You can get this through a website called AnnualCreditReport.com.

But what if, like Cabral, you want more than one report a year? Then you have to purchase additional access. And that's a whole lot easier said than done.

Cabral, 47, a development consultant who resides in a loft in downtown Los Angeles, said the credit bureaus seem determined to enroll people in credit-monitoring programs with recurring monthly fees, not provide easy access to basic credit information.

As an example, he encouraged me to visit the TransUnion website and find the option of a single purchase of my credit file. I quickly saw he was right.

The main page contains no clear offer of a one-time-only credit file purchase. But it instructs you to click a button for a "free" credit score. Doing so took me to a page to sign up for a credit-monitoring service costing $14.95 a month.

I scoured the site in search of where to simply buy a copy of my credit file. I couldn't find a link that seemed even remotely promising.

Cabral finally showed me where it's hidden. On the main page you have to click a link at the top left-hand corner marked "Personal." Then you come to a page with a link for "Credit Reports and Monitoring," but don't click that — it's a trick. You'll just end up being offered more services with recurring payments.

What you actually have to do is click a drop-down menu under an innocuous box saying "Access Accounts" in the top right-hand corner. Then, inexplicably, you have to select "login assistance."

At last you'll arrive at a page with a link for purchasing a single credit report for $10.50.

"Look how hard that is," Cabral said. "If you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't know to even look for it."

I presented the same challenge to Steven Katz, a TransUnion spokesman. I asked him to show me how to get from the company's homepage to a page allowing me to purchase a credit report.

After an awkward silence as he scanned the TransUnion site, Katz said, "I see what you're saying."

Isn't that a problem?

"This might be something we need to look at," Katz replied. "We're always looking for ways to make the site better."

I found the Experian site a bit easier to navigate. But Cabral warned me that when he tried to purchase his credit report there, he ended up inadvertently signing up for a credit-monitoring service as well.

"I thought I was being real careful," he said. "But then I got an e-mail welcoming me to Experian Direct, which costs $14.95 a month."

Of the three bureaus, only the Equifax site seemed to lead fairly smoothly to the option of buying a single credit report for $10.50. But it still required a couple of tricky clicks, such as first hitting "view all products."

Demitra Wilson, an Equifax spokeswoman, said it's true that it can take some hunting to find a way to purchase a credit report online, "but we think we made it easy for people to get to the free one."

That's not good enough.

If we can all agree that it's important for consumers to know their credit status — and the credit bureaus wouldn't argue that point — it should be much easier to get your hands on a plain-vanilla report without having to run an obstacle course of fee-laden services.

Each bureau should be required to prominently feature a link not just to access your free annual credit report but also to purchase an additional report, without any bells or whistles attached.

If a consumer wants a credit-monitoring program, he or she will sign up for it. The bureaus shouldn't be all but duping people into enrolling.

"I've come to the conclusion that it's just not worth it," Cabral said. "I'll just try to pay all my bills on time and hope everything's OK."

That couldn't possibly be the outcome we want.

A little tip

Are you a AAA member? Then you can sign up for free daily monitoring of your Experian credit file. This won't provide 100% protection — you'd need to stay on top of your Equifax and TransUnion files as well — but it can help alert you to any possible fraud or identity theft.

More info is available at AAA's website.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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