Snarketing: Free Credit Report (Dot Com)

We spend most of our lives being bombarded with advertising and marketing messages. Many of us aren’t skeptical enough when looking at what companies are trying to sell us.  I actually enjoy dissecting advertisements and trying to rate the level of reality provided in the ads based on the actual products being sold.  In what will hopefully be a new regular feature on Skepchick, we’ll be taking a look at specific ads or marketing messages and applying some good old-fashioned critical thinking.

First up, FreeCreditReport.com:

Cute, no? Well, they tried.

Ok, sure, in that one ad, the guy is kind of a jerk about his poor wife who apparently made some bad decisions about money… But really, you shouldn’t consider marrying someone unless you check out their financial situation, right? It’s part of a pre-falling-in-love background check. And, boys, if her credit score isn’t up to par because she ‘defaulted on some old credit card’ (probably buying SHOES, the silly girl), then you have EVERY RIGHT to call off the wedding so you can ‘be a happy bachelor with a dog and a yard.’ Presumably with someone with good credit doing your laundry while you screw around in the basement with your band.

But, believe it or not, I’m not here to talk about the vaguely sexist connotations in the ad. There’s much more!

So what exactly does FreeCreditReport.com do?

I have a guitar so you should totally take my financial advice, baby!

What they say

Based on the language in the ads, they:

“…monitor your credit and send you e-mail alerts..”

and

“..they know how credit works”

The idea is that the company monitors your credit and provides you with alerts if anything changes in your score so you can be more protected, particularly from identity theft.

What they imply

The ads make it appear that you just go check your credit score on the website, it will allow you to really change your economic and life status. In various ads, the financial-advisor/pirate/minstrel/waiter says that using FreeCreditReport.com will allow you to:

  • Protect yourself from identity theft
  • Buy a better car
  • Avoid marrying a girl with bad credit
  • Allow you to avoid Renaissance Festivals
  • Avoid getting a bad job
  • Help you get out of debt
  • Get a better cell phone
  • Get a better apartment

What they actually do

FreeCreditReport.com is a subsidiary company of Experian, which is one of the three major credit score companies.

The site allows you to check your credit score, see who else has been checking your score and supposedly helps protect you from identity theft by sending you email alerts when there are changes in your credit score.

What they don’t tell you

These ads are misleading for a few reasons:

First, the word ‘free.’  It’s true, when you provide your information, you get your credit reports without being charged. However, you’ll notice there’s some small print and quick-legal-voice at the end of the ads that says “Offer applies with enrollment in Triple Advantage.”

Triple Advantage is actually what provides the ongoing service and sends you alerts when your credit score changes. And yes, you guessed it. It’s not free. When you sign up, you can get free access for 7 days but if you don’t cancel, they’ll start charging you $14.95 per month. Let’s take a step back and examine that. $15 bucks a month so a system can tell you if someone is stealing your money. Oh, irony, thy name is Minstrel-Douche-FreeCreditReport-RenFest-Guy…

Back in 2007, the FTC sued Experian parent company for deceptive marketing tactics. They settled for $950,000 in the form of free credit monitoring for those affected and agreed not to use deceptive and misleading claims about free offers and to offer full disclosure of terms and conditions of any free offers. So now, if you go to the website, the terms of the Triple Advantage requirement are noted on the front page. It’s still not very clear and the ads themselves certainly don’t make that obvious. Sadly, $950,000 was a drop in the bucket for Experian, which made over $4 billion in revenues last year. So we can all look forward to more Hipster-Pirate-Guitar-Strumming-Lying-Dude ads in our future.

Crazy Pink Hello Kitty says SPEND MONEY!

The really disingenuous part of this ad campaign is the implication that the service will somehow improve your credit score – get you a better cell phone or car. The reality is that if you have bad credit, knowing it will only prevent you the embarrassment of applying for a loan in the first place. You still won’t get the cool car or cell phone.

As for preventing identity theft, again, all the service does is send you details about changes in your credit score, at which point, you need to do the research yourself to confirm what is going on.

Also keep in mind that you can already get your credit report information, for free, every 12 months from the three consumer credit score companies (including Experian).  It’s part of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In addition, if you suspect that you are a victim of fraud or identity theft, you can put a ‘fraud watch’ on your credit score and get alerted if there is unusual activity against your credit. It’s also a good idea to check out the FTC’s recommendations for preventing and reacting to identity theft. There are several logical, simple things that you can do to protect yourself.

What’s the score?

Bullshit Rating: These ads are targeting people concerned about their credit and are particularly taking advantage of the bad economy and the general fear of credit fraud to imply that there is much more to the service than it actually does.  It also plays on the fact that many people don’t really understand how credit scores work and what effects them. And of course, the liberal use of the word ‘free’ is highly misleading. I give it:

4.5 out of 5 turds on the Deuceometer.

Usefulness: There’s certainly value in knowing this information and keeping track of your credit. So I’ll grudgingly give it 3 out of 5 rolls on the Duct Tape Scale for pure usefulness of product.

Value for Money: Pretty much everything that the Triple Advantage service can offer is available elsewhere for free. The email alerts on changes to your score are useful but really not worth $15 per month.  Value Rating: 1 out of 5 crackers on the Bang for your Buck Scale.

Annoying Factor: A solid 5 out of 5 on the Whiny Broke Emo-Waiter Scale

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

38 Comments

  1. Yay! next up that stupid Extenze commercial. Just because 100,000 men have bought your stupid product doesn’t mean that it actually works! GAAAA! And yeah, misleading stupid commercials with horrible, yet somewhat catchy tunes that get randomly stuck in ones head suck.

    Also should note, some of your images are broken, you might want to check those tags and see where the image source is being pointed to.

  2. You can get your credit reports for all three reporting agencies from Annualcreditreport.com. As far as is known, it is free once a year. Thank you Clark Howard. :)

    http://clarkhoward.com/topics/freecreditreportinfo.html

    Guitarboy has a catchy tune but a poor message.

  3. I want more of these! (I don’t watch tv on tv with commercials anymore so I don’t see these fantastic specimens except in situations like this.)

    @anon You get a copy of each reporting agency’s report once a year for free and this report doesn’t include an actual “credit score”.

  4. I can get my credit report from my bank for free if necessary.

    Unsurprisingly, Ben “Expelled” Stein shills for a similarly shady “service”:

    http://moneywatch.bnet.com/saving-money/blog/consumer-reporter/free-credit-report-not-so-fast-ben-stein/219/

    I think when this was discovered it lost him a business reporting gig.

  5. Advertisements are a great thing to be skeptical about, and there are too many people out there that don’t realize that they can be completely bogus! Keep up the good work!

  6. @killyosaur: @loudlyquiet:
    We’re hoping to make this a regular feature so if you have specifics you want me to cover, let me know. Extenze is a great one!

  7. As soon as we declared bankruptcy back in ’06 I unsubscribed… not the easiest thing to do.. those bastards… took my wife 3 dang years to get unsubscribed from the blood suckers.

    free credit report my arse!
    and p.s. SCREW Ben Stein! idiot and anti evolutionist that he is.

  8. @killyosaur: Gods, everytime I hear about Extenze I think about that creepy weird ass movie eXistenZ with Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh. That movie gave me the heebies but it made me think, lol.

    Now when I hear about Extenze though, I picture it as some weird, organic video game that plugs into your lower back and gives you an erection.

  9. It gets better actually.
    It also has some zenophobic baggage. Cute loser boy is Quebecois and they use a voiceover actor to disguise his evil furener accent.
    http://tinyurl.com/5rhc5e

    And, I’m really tired of hearing about Bob’s boner–especially him sharing it with everyone at the office Christmas party. Creepy isn’t a strong enough word.

  10. I think $15 a month is a bargain if it helps me to avoid Renaissance Festivals.

    I am looking forward to your report on Gold4Less. I’ve had to talk people out of using that scam.

  11. You know what else is awesome? I signed up for this when my husband and I were preparting to start mortgage shopping.

    I signed up for two accounts – one for me. One for Brian. I put them both on my credit card. Had them both sent to my email address.

    We monitored things for a few months. We cleaned up some things. And once we didn’t need the updates anymore, I called to cancel.

    Except I couldn’t cancel Brian’s account because I’m not Brian! I can monitor his credit. I can have all his credit updates sent to me. I can watch his credit and know when the best time is to take out a credit card in his name. But I can’t cancel the service. Brian has to do it himself… because they only check your identity if you want to STOP giving them money. They don’t care who you are or what your intentions are when you ask them to hand over sensitive personal information.

  12. My bank sells a service for 12 bucks a month to stop people from stealing my money, people buy dispite the fact that they already do that for free, you’d think it’d be obvious given that they’re a fucking bank.

    But free credit report has some catchy songs, even though they make no logical sense whatsoever, and who doesn’t want a pirate hat?

  13. Wow, great new feature! I’m at a point now where that credit report guy could be advertising a working cold fusion generator and I’d still want to bash his goddam head in and then not buy one out of spite.

  14. @Masala Skeptic: Awesome. Love the rating system! These are going to be fun!

  15. Great rating system! Although I must detest, I happen to find most of the commercials catchy and I can’t blame the actor for doing his job.

  16. When you sign up, you can get free access for 7 days but if you don’t cancel, they’ll start charging you $14.95 per month.

    On top of that, they make it nearly impossible to cancel. Sadly, I was duped by them. I never thought they’d prevent identity theft or raise my score, but I needed to know my credit score, so I went there.

    Anyway, you can’t cancel on the website. You have to call them, but they’re only available during the times when most people are working at their own jobs. When I called them on my lunch break, I suffered through 10 minutes of advertising until I got to a menu, then I was on hold and shortly disconnected. This happened three times. I finally e-mailed some contact address and insisted that they cancel my account or they would be promptly reported (which they were anyway). Luckily, they never charged my credit card. I should have known better than to sign up in the first place, but I didn’t know about the real free credit report site at that time.

    Also, the jingles and songs are so annoying that there should be a law against these guys for that reason alone.

    I also get angry when they imply that simply monitoring your credit report will somehow magically improve it. If you make late payments and such, no amount of monitoring will improve your report until you become more responsible with your credit.

  17. Okay, we don’t have this service, but I do have one of the notification services with one of the other Big Three credit companies.

    Why? Because my husband travels a lot for business and can be less than careful with his wallet. So we have it mostly because they are pretty good with telling you when someone is trying to initiate a new account with your numbers – based on our own legitimate account opening/closing, within two to three days, which isn’t immediate, but it’s better than months or years. And the few times I’ve had to put a fraud alert on our cards for whatever reason (usually because some third party screwed up), it is nice to be able to cruise and see who’s been checking on your credit. But most people are not us, and don’t have a husband who leaves his wallet in hotel room once or twice a year…

    What I really don’t get about these commercials? Identity theft is simply not as rare (or at least awareness of it) as it used to be. The concept that someone opened up a credit card on your SSN now doesn’t mean financial ruin. There are safeguards in place, especially considering most major credit card data exposures aren’t made by individuals, but by banks and vendors.

    And besides – my Dad has had one of his cards stolen twice (well, “stolen” if you mean once he left it behind at a restaurant and unscrupulous wait staff took it; the other time one simply wrote down all the numbers and tried to use it on the Internet using his business address). Both times – and this is long before these services were even available – the credit company didn’t make him pay for those charges. Ever. Because he didn’t make them.

    The commercials have catchy jingles, but really misleading advertising.

  18. Oh. And I vote for the new Old Spice commercial to be reviewed next. From an advertising standpoint and a cultural standpoint, it’s got a lot going on.

    And, you know, it was brilliantly produced, so kudos to the agency on that one.

  19. I find Consumer Reports typically does a really good job of evaluating these types of “services”.

    @Chasmosaur: Currently my favorite commercial.

  20. umm…does this mean I should cancel my subscription? I’m not joking. I’ve had this for a few years now. I’ve seen my credit score go from 500 to 700. I used this information to get out of debt-just to get right back in-I just bought my first place. Yes, I’m a bachelor, but I don’t have a yard, or a dog for that matter, I’m more of a cat person. I mean, I’ve used it for good, does that count for something?

  21. @Chasmosaur:

    The commercials have catchy jingles, but really misleading advertising.

    The jingles are catchy like the Plague. I have to keep my remote by my side just to mute them.

  22. @infinitemonkey:

    Why did you need this service to get out of debt? Couldn’t you pay off your debts without it? I just don’t see how this service adds anything useful. Also, congrats on buying your first place; now is the right time to do it.

  23. @catgirl: In addition to giving you your report and your score, you also get contact information and the amounts they have recorded. So, when I saved up enough money, I’d call up my creditors and say “How much will you accept to make this go away.” Then I’d bust out my debit card and pay it.

  24. Nothing that claims to be free and also asks for a credit card number should be trusted.

  25. @James Fox:

    Have you seen the little making of? Totally awesome.

    http://www.crunchgear.com/2010/02/17/the-making-of-a-great-commercial/

  26. @infinitemonkey: Ummm… Didn’t your creditors already give you that information when they sent you the bill?

  27. Nothing is annoying as infinite Rachael from card services automated telephone calls.

  28. @infinitemonkey:

    Like I said, I found it useful for a short time. However, it was too easy to sign up for someone else’s stuff and a huge pain in the ass to cancel… and the fact is that their ads are misleading. It’s not a FREE credit report. It’s a FREE* credit report. And there’s a huge difference.

  29. @Masala Skeptic: I gathered that, and yes, I think that a commercial that uses a logical fallacy as its marketing ploy would be ideal for this. Never mind the fact that none of those products have ever been shown to work conclusively.

    @Surly Nymph: this made me laugh. COTW. And yes, there is a kind of Existenz reference going on there, although that movie kicked ass and that product has a commercial that tends to make me throw up in my mouth a little every time I see it. That is something that should only happen when I decide to do a long run after a heavy meal, which is stupid, and I really need to stop doing that. Light meals on the days I do longer runs, heavy meals are fine when I do shorter runs.

  30. @killyosaur: Sure. Extenze is total crap. But eXistenZ? That shit will blow your mind!

  31. I’ll admit, I use this service. Is it worth 15 a month, no. But I’ve been aggressively attacking my credit for the past 18 months or so and it gives me a rough idea of where I am. Yes you can get your report from annualcreditreport but not your score. Also FCR gives you ok access to experian to dispute information.

    As for cancelling? I didn’t have the money in my account for them to take the 15 one month and they stopped charging me until I paid them. I haven’t formally tried to cancel.

    I know it’s not a great service, but it’s helped me enough to justify it.

    Also, the guy who does the songs is french canadian and doesn’t know english at all. He lip syncs all of the songs.

  32. @T-Storm: As far as I can tell, Eric Violette (the singer) can speak English fine. He just does it with a French accent so they make him lip synch since Americans probably wouldn’t trust advice from a frenchie :)

    http://www.ericviolette.com/index_engwelcome.php

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/01/AR2009050100131.html

    My favorite article thus far is this one in the MSNBC “Science and Tech” section, which mentions the ACTUAL issues with FCR.com’s practices but gushes on about how cute Violette is… http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26061279/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/

    I weep for the future…

  33. Also, to all the folks who use the service – I agree, there’s value to knowing this info, particularly if you are having particular issues and want to know your score daily.

    That’s why I gave it a higher usefulness rating. The information is real and does have value.

    Interesting that it is so difficult to cancel, too. It’s the sign of a shady company, in my opinion.

  34. “Ummm… Didn’t your creditors already give you that information when they sent you the bill?”

    LOL. Never been in debt before, huh.

  35. This is a really great new feature! I have a list of bizarre problems with Extenz commercials, so I do hope that is next.

    Is it wrong that I want to hear cute, whiny guy’s real accent now?

    And what’s wrong with a Ren Faire, huh?!

  36. I signed up for the credit report thing on my USAA bank, mostly for protection.

    @Chasmosaur: LOVE that commercial.

  37. This article reminds me of one of my earliest manifestations of skeptical thought: a subscription to Zillions (consumer reports for kids) when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. That magazine was a great stepping stone for evaluating questionable claims and avoiding worthless products.

  38. Fan-flippin’-tastical feature! I say this despite the fact that just reading about the ads has the songs lodged deeply in my brain.

    I nominate ZiCam. They never mention that it is just water in their ads. I despise them for marketing homeopathy in the exact same manner as legitimate medicine.

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