On August 16, 2005 , the most prolific marketer of paid credit report services, Experian Consumer Direct, has settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceptively marketed “free credit reports” by not adequately disclosing that consumers automatically would be signed up for a credit report monitoring service and charged $79.95 if they didn’t cancel within 30 days, in violation of federal law. The settlement requires Consumerinfo to pay redress to deceived consumers, bars deceptive and misleading claims about “free” offers, requires disclosure of terms and conditions of any “free” offers, and requires the defendant to give up $950,000 in ill-gotten gains.
According to the FTC complaint, the defendant drove consumers to their www.freecreditreport.com and www.consumerinfo.com Web sites with radio, television, e-mail and Internet ads that promised free credit reports and a bonus – free trials of a credit-monitoring service. Ads made claims such as:
FREE! FREE! FREE! Get Your FREE Credit Report Online in Seconds!!!!
Click here to get a FREE copy of your online Credit Report Instantly!
And that’s not all. . . along with your INSTANT credit report, we’ll give
you 30 FREE days of the Credit Check Monitoring Service at no obligation.
Consumers were required to provide detailed personal information and a valid credit card account number to get their credit report. They were assured that, “Your card will not be charged during the free trial period. However, valid credit card information is required to establish your account.”
According to the FTC’s complaint, Consumerinfo’s advertising and Web sites failed to explain adequately that after the free trial period for the credit monitoring service expired, consumers automatically would be charged a $79.95 annual membership, unless they notified the defendant within 30 days to cancel the service. Consumerinfo billed the credit cards that it had told consumers were “required only to establish your account,” and, in some cases, automatically renewed memberships by re-billing consumers without notice. The FTC charged that the defendant’s failure to adequately disclose the automatic billing and to get consumers’ consent to bill their accounts violated federal law.
The complaint also alleges that Consumerinfo misled consumers about their association with the annual free credit report program for which U.S. consumers are eligible by federal law. A federal law enacted in December 2003, gives consumers the right to get one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three national consumer reporting companies. This program began in western states on December 1, 2004, and will cover all U.S. consumers by September 1, 2005. Consumers can get their free reports by phone, mail, or at one authorized Web site, www.annualcreditreport.com. The FTC complaint alleges that Consumerinfo deceptively advertised and promoted its “free reports” at its “freecreditreport.com” Web site, without disclosing that it was not associated with the official annual free credit report program.
“Consumers paid the price for ordering free credit reports from freecreditreport.com,” said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It’s unfair and deceptive to promise consumers something for free and then trick them into paying for products they didn’t want in the first place.”
“Consumers also need to be alert about impostor sites – sites that misspell annualcreditreport.com or use sound alike names, but don’t link to the authorized site. We are sending letters to operators of more than 130 impostor sites to inform them that we know they are out there and that attempts to mislead consumers are illegal,” she said.
The settlement is designed to assure that the defendant’s negative-option or “free” offers do not contain misrepresentations, and that they disclose all terms and conditions of the offers. The settlement establishes specific disclosure requirements in promotions for the defendant’s “free credit report” offer. Among other things, the defendant must clearly tell consumers that they will be charged unless they cancel within the trial period, and that the offer is not related to the free credit report program mandated by Congress.
The settlement requires redress for consumers who enrolled in Consumerinfo’s credit monitoring program between 2000 and 2003, canceled the monitoring service and received a partial refund or filed a complaint about the charges for the service. Consumers who qualify for a refund should receive a notice from Consumerinfo by email or first class mail within the next few months. The FTC staff has released answers to frequently asked questions available at www.ftc.gov/freereports to help Consumerinfo customers determine if they’re eligible for a refund. It also has established an information hotline for consumers to call for information on refunds. The phone number is (202) 326-3457.
In addition to the redress program, the settlement requires the defendant to pay $950,000 in ill-gotten gains to the Commission. The money may be used to provide consumer education.
The settlement also contains record-keeping and bookkeeping provisions to allow the FTC to monitor compliance with the order.
The FTC has published two consumer brochures: “Want a Free Annual Credit Report? The Only Official Website is annualcreditreport.com” warns consumers about imposter sites; “Your Access to Free Credit Reports,” educates consumers about their right to a free copy of their credit reports, and discusses other consumer rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the FACT Act. Both publications are available in English and Spanish at www.ftc.gov/freereports.
The Commission vote to authorize staff to file the complaint and stipulated final order was 3-0-1, with Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras recused. They were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, in Santa Ana.
The complaint named Consumerinfo.com., Inc., doing business as Experian Consumer Direct, Qspace, Inc., and Iplace Inc. Consumerinfo.com is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Experian North America, which is also the parent company of Experian Information Services, one of the three national credit reporting companies.
This case was brought with the invaluable assistance of the office of California Attorney General, Bill Lockyer. The agency also wishes to acknowledge the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed a complaint about Consumerinfo.com with the Commission, and the World Privacy Forum for reports it submitted to the agency on imposter sites.
NOTE: A stipulated final judgment and order is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Stipulated final judgments have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the complaint and consent agreement are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Claudia Bourne Farrell,
Office of Public Affairs
Consumerinfo Information Line: 202-326-3457
(FTC File No. 022-3263)
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