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.Â I actually enjoy dissecting advertisements and trying to rate the level of reality provided in the ads based on the actual products being sold.Â 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?
What they say
Based on the language in the ads, they:
“…monitor your credit and send you e-mail alerts..”
“..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.’Â 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.
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).Â 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.Â 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.Â 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