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Beware: Pricey upsells take the free out of free credit reports

Fred Williams

You hear the advice again and again: Look at your credit reports every year. It is your right, and they are free from the federally approved website www.annualcreditreport.com.

I’m adding one footnote: Watch out for the upsell. Otherwise you’ll be paying for an expensive look at your credit score, which is free from other sources.

When I pulled my free annual credit reports this week, I noticed some of the big credit bureaus have become craftier about channeling you toward things that aren’t free. Their formats for viewing reports also differ, and range from simple to aggravating.

These are my observations on the free credit report experience from the three biggest credit bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

Equifax

A full personal credit report can contain a lot of information. Equifax gets points for presenting all the data clearly. The main page is a summary of your credit report, showing an overview of your accounts, negative information and some helpful statistics, such as a pie chart breaking down debts by category. Tabs at the left drill down to detailed information on your accounts, your personal data, negatives and other topics. The main page and each tab can be printed or saved as a pdf.

That rates five stars for convenience — but I am going to deduct points for the upsell. A big red button on the top of each page warns you that the credit report doesn’t include your credit score. Click on it and you can buy your score for $7.95. That’s no bargain. If you have a credit card, the chances are good that you already have access to your credit score for free, updated monthly. And if not, you can sign up for one of a number of free services that provide updated scores.

TransUnion

Welcome to the old school. If you are a veteran of the credit report scene you will feel right at home in TransUnion’s environment – as long as your wrist doesn’t go numb from scrolling. One long file does it all, starting with your personal information, past addresses, then your accounts. Scroll down memory lane, revisiting old credit cards you forgot ever having, as well as current ones. Make note of the key to abbreviations before you begin, or it will be a long trip back to review them. Finally there are inquiries, then on your way out through the gift shop, don’t be lured into paying for credit monitoring.

Experian

Prepare for more scrolling. Experian plants the code to abbreviations you’ll need in a box permanently lodged on your screen. But this reduces the screen space available to review your accounts, making it more difficult to keep track of what account you’re looking at. As you come to the end, better have your printer fired up. There is no option to save the file in a way you can easily reopen it on your computer. This was the clumsiest format of the three, in my view.

But Experian gets points for having challenge questions that didn’t scare me out of my seat. To get access to your report you must answer multiple-choice questions about your credit history. Some questions from the other bureaus have no correct answers. Reading a list of unfamiliar lenders that are supposedly in your account records, it is natural to fear that your credit file has become mixed up with someone else’s, or fraudsters are taking out loans in your name. My pulse calmed only finding nothing wrong on my report.

That’s enough for one year.  Now it’s your turn. If you haven’t yet, it is time to pull your credit reports. Then let us know – were you confused by the layout? Were you tempted by the upsells to stray from the free information?

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