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Personalized Credit Consulting

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to get a free credit report

If you’re looking for credit information, there have been two types of free: the free report that you’re entitled to by law once a year from the three major credit bureaus and “free” credit reports constantly hyped in television ads that actually require consumers to sign up for a paid service.



Now, there’s a third kind of “free.” A growing number of services provide information beyond what you get from a government-mandated free report without requiring a subscription to a paid service – but they exact payment in another way: by collecting personal information that can be used to target pitches for other products and services.

The newest of these is Credit.com’s Credit Report Card. It joins other services, such as CreditKarma and Quizzle, which promise a clearer view into your credit record – a rap sheet that can determine the success of your mortgage application or the limit on your credit card. 7-day FREE trial of 3 Bureau Credit Monitoring!  Plus Credit Report & Score - $0

 Start Score Watch® TodayIn this age of frugality, that trade-off – sharing some information in exchange for intelligence on your credit rating – might seem like a bargain to some, particularly when compared with services like FreeCreditReport.com, which touts the free report but supplies it only after consumers sign up for a $14.95-a-month credit monitoring service. (Consumers can cancel that service before the end of a free trial period and keep the free report.)

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But what exactly do you get with the new breed of “free” services?

Credit.com's Credit Report Card offers an analysis of your credit health, using the information in your TransUnion credit report. It’s presented in a format that even the least credit-savvy consumers can understand: You are graded on a scale of A through F in the five categories that make up your credit score, with an explanation behind each grade. You also get an estimated range for five credit scores including your FICO and VantageScore, as well as the educational credit scores from Experian and TransUnion. (Although most lenders use FICO scores to make credit decisions, and some use VantageScore, the credit bureaus also have their own score algorithms, or educational scores. Read more about this here. 7-day FREE trial of 3 Bureau Credit Monitoring!  Plus Credit Report & Score - $0 )

Credit.com doesn’t give you your actual credit report or score in its Report Card – though the site does offer to sell you one, if you so desire – but plenty of other places do. CreditKarma, launched a little over a year ago, offers a free credit score from TransUnion, along with a credit analysis tool and simulator, which helps you see how certain actions (say, applying for a new credit card or paying late) will affect your current score.




Quizzle.com will give you a free credit report from Experian every six months and a free CE Analytics credit score (an educational score that is not used by lenders, but is similar to the FICO score).

How do businesses like CreditKarma.com and Quizzle.com afford to offer free credit reports, scores or other information that the credit bureaus generally charge for? They pitch partners’ products or sell advertising or credit monitoring services through partnerships with the credit bureaus. Both CreditKarma and Quizzle sell targeted advertising based on the information you provide when you sign up and the data in your credit report.
 
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You could be pitched auto or mortgage loans, for example, if they have lower rates than the ones you currently have. The sites can estimate your rates based on the origination date of the loans (information available in your credit report).

But, as with any product marketed as “free,” consumers should watch out. “Numerous web sites offer ‘free’ reports or credit scores that are tied to offers of credit monitoring or other services,” says Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for Florida’s attorney general’s Office. FreeCreditReport.com, FreeScore.com and even FICO itself offer free reports and scores as part of a trial period for their credit-monitoring services that, unless canceled within a certain deadline (sometimes as short as seven days), can cost you as much as $29.95 a month. These terms are usually spelled out on the product’s sign-up page, so be sure to read all the fine print before you give out your credit-card number.



Thanks to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) of 2003, consumers are now able to get one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion through www.annualcreditreport.com (Credit scores are not included in the government-mandated free reports.)

Despite the shortcomings – the free scores they offer are different from the FICO score – these services can be a viable solution for cost-conscious consumers who want to stay on top of their credit. “It gets a little pricey and when you see month after month no change [to your credit], you start to question the value of these services,” says Dennis Moroney, a senior analyst for financial-services research firm TowerGroup.

That’s not good news for the credit bureaus, who are already feeling the pinch of the credit crunch. Although they make some money from the free services, some of which confirmed that they pay for those scores or reports on the consumer’s behalf, the bureaus are selling fewer of their own consumer credit reports and scores to lenders – and fewer to consumers, as well.

“The demand for credit has decreased in the past year, so the need for credit checks has decreased,” says Bradley Meeks, an equity analyst who covers Equifax and FICO  at research firm Morningstar. “Those are discretionary purchases for most people, and they’re not going to spend $30 in this environment.”
While exact numbers on direct-to-consumer sales are hard to get (the credit bureaus pair that category with other parts of the business, say, lead generation or mortgage solutions), operating revenue at Equifax’s U.S. Consumer Information Solutions segment was down 9% in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2008.



At Experian, direct-to-consumer sales are still growing (thanks largely to its widely advertised FreeCreditReport.com), though nowhere near the 20% to 30% rates registered between 2005 and 2007, according to Carter Malloy, an analyst who covers the company at Stephens Inc., a privately held, full-service investment banking firm in Little Rock, Ark. Malloy predicts mid- to high-single-digit growth over the next five years. “General consumer interest [in credit and credit scores] is continuing to rise,” he says.

TransUnion, a privately held corporation, does not release earnings numbers.

If you’re planning to apply for credit in the near future, these free solutions may not be enough. The free score offered by CreditKarma.com is a TransUnion score that, although commercially available to lenders, is not nearly as widely used as the FICO score. (And the point-difference between the two can be high. The TransUnion score ranges between 150 and 950 points, while the FICO range is 300-850.) Quizzle.com’s free score is not used by lenders at all. Neither is the credit score you get from FreeCreditReport.com, which is Experian’s PLUS score.


One of the few – and not entirely risk-free – ways to get a truly free FICO score is to sign up for the company’s Score Watch credit-monitoring service and cancel your membership within 30 days. Another possibility: Some financial institutions are starting to offer free FICO scores as a value-added service to their clients. According to FICO, one of the three biggest banks will roll out free FICO scores in the near future.



Mr. Dangerfield is an I.A.P.D.A Certified Debt Specialist whom has worked in the finance industry for over a decade. He manages www.beingbrokesuckstoday.com and is the author of "A Dangerfield Manifesto" and co-founder of SMG Holdings, the parent company of Squad Music Group, Dangerfield Artistic Entertainment SMG Publishing and Taboo Dangerfield Publishing
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