Many websites advertise that they allow you to check your credit report and/or credit score for free. But there's a catch: many of these "free" reports and scores actually cost money. Let's take a look at a few of these websites to see what they really charge.
TUTORIAL: Credit Cards
Credit Reports vs. Credit Scores
Before you check anything, know the difference between a credit report and a credit score. A credit report shows all of the credit accounts in your name, how long you've had them, how much you owe and whether you pay on time. A credit score is a three-digit number between 300 and 850 that lenders use to assess the risk of lending to you. The higher the number, the better your score. (For related reading, see Consumer Credit Report: What's On It.)
"Free" Credit Report And Credit Score Websites Explored
What follows is not an exhaustive list of sites advertising free credit reports or free credit scores, but it will give you an idea of what to look out for.
FreeCreditReport.com is probably the most heavily advertised site. You've heard the jingles on TV about working as a pirate in a restaurant and living in your parents' basement. The site advertises two different offers. One is "Get Your Instant Credit Report & Score for $1." The top of the webpage says, "When you order your $1 Credit Report and Score here, you will begin your 7-day trial membership in freecreditreport.com. If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership. You may cancel your trial membership anytime within the trial period without charge."
There are no surprises here, though one might argue that the name of the website is a bit misleading.
The second offer is "Free Credit Report Delivered in 2 Days." The site states that no credit score is included in this offer and that no membership is required. It's difficult to tell what you're really signing up for before you are asked provide your Social Security number, though.
The terms and conditions state that you are required to provide a credit card number to receive your free report, and you will be asked if you want to purchase your score. If you do order your score, you will be enrolled in a trial of freecreditreport.com Credit Monitoring. Presumably, as with the previous offer, you will be billed $14.95 per month if you don't cancel. Furthermore, why would you want to wait two days for a credit report that other sites offer instant access to? (For related reading, see The Importance Of Your Credit Rating.)
FreeCreditScore.com makes it quite clear that you're signing up for a free trial of a credit monitoring service to get your free credit score. The homepage says "Start Your Trial Here," "Get Your FREE Trial & FREE Credit Score" and "When you order your free credit score here, you will begin your 7-day trial membership in freecreditscore.com. If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership. You may cancel your trial membership anytime within the trial period without charge." You have to provide your credit card information to get the free trial. The website's name might be somewhat misleading, but the site itself is not.
FreeScoreOnline.com advertises "Fast and Secure Free Credit Scores" in large print, but the small print underneath says, "with your 7-day ScoreSense trial." The page asks for your first and last name, zip code and email address. The following page asks for your address, phone number and reason for checking your credit score - no explanation is given yet of the product you're signing up for. Not until you submit this information and arrive at page three, do you learn what you're getting, assuming you're paying attention. The page asks for your credit card information and has a large "View Scores" button that submits your order. The information about what you're ordering is all in small print.
So what are you ordering? A "free" 7-day trial for which you will immediately be charged a $1 "refundable" processing fee. You will receive your credit score from each of the three credit bureaus and be enrolled in a credit monitoring service that costs $29.95 per month. You will be charged this fee "on a monthly basis unless and until you call 1-800-972-7204 to cancel your membership."
The terms and conditions also state, "If for some reason you do not have access to a phone, you may terminate by writing us at 4447 North Central Expressway, Suite 110 PMB 406, Dallas, TX 75205, and requesting termination. You may not cancel via email to us. We do not provide prorated refunds."
It seems likely that if you cancel by mail, the cancellation will not occur until after your trial period has ended. The company also reserves the right to increase the price of your subscription and start charging you the new price.
At the time of writing, credit bureau TransUnion's home page features a large advertisement for a "FREE Credit Score." Click on the link and you'll end up on a page for a seven-day free trial to a credit monitoring service from TrueCredit that costs $14.95 per month once the trial expires. You have to provide your credit card number to get the trial, and you will automatically be billed for the service when the trial period expires unless you cancel in time. The membership renews "indefinitely without action by the member," according to the TrueCredit terms and conditions.
TUTORIAL: Credit Cards: Pros And Cons
The Bottom Line
Before you order a credit report or credit score, make sure you understand what you're really ordering. Many sites advertise free credit reports or scores, but if you have to provide your credit card information, you're likely to get charged for something. (For additional reading, see Check Your Credit Report.)