Maine AG joins effort to stop bogus free credit report ads

Posted Dec. 09, 2009, at 7:46 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Watch TV just about any time of day or night and you are almost certain to see one of those catchy ads with the young guy playing a guitar bemoaning his fate for not watching his credit by getting a free credit report.

But Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills says that the credit reports advertised in the ads are not free.

“Those are very well done ads, very clever and very eye-catching,” Mills said. “We contend that advertising something as free when it is not in fact free, that you in fact have to buy something to get it, is deceptive advertising and is in violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.”

She has joined with attorneys general from more than 40 states in sending a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging that it adopt rules banning the ads unless they adequately disclose that the reports they provide are not free and inform consumers that they can get a free report from the FTC.

“The Web sites are misleading and confusing to consumers and the rules should require that they are clear and understandable,” Mills said.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was the lead AG on the letter, and she also was sharply critical of the ads and the Web sites. She said the proposed rules of the FTC are not strong enough and should ban the automatic enrollment for services that occur on some Web sites.

“When consumers sign up to receive a ‘free’ credit report other than the www.AnnualCreditReport.com Web site, they are often automatically enrolled in another product or service,” she wrote. “Consumers are given a specific amount of time, sometimes as little as seven days, in which to cancel that automatic enrollment without incurring any charges.”

The AGs are also proposing that Web addresses containing the phrase or a variation of the phrase “free credit report” be banned and limited for use by the FTC. Mills said consumers are confused and believe that when something is advertised as free, it is free and are surprised and upset when they are asked to pay for a credit report.

“When consumers go to these Web sites now they get inundated with offers for products and services,” she said, “and those efforts to sell continue with e-mails urging you to buy a product or service.”

The AGs also want specific types of disclosures on all of the ads so consumers are clearly warned that if they get their credit report from the Web site that is advertised, they are going to be buying something they may not want or need.

“Every day there are new forms of advertising being created, and we need to make sure consumers continue to be protected as the new advertising methods are developed,” Mills said. “We hope that the FTC will clarify that whatever advertising medium is used, consumers will know what they are getting into with one of these Web sites.”

In her letter, Madigan also urged that the same disclosure rules for ads be applied to telemarketing efforts. She proposed that in every telemarketing call there would have to be not only disclosure that the Web site being marketed did not supply the official free credit report; it would have to include a statement of how to get the real free report from the FTC.

For several years, every person has been entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It is available at the FTC-operated Web site www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

Congress, in the credit card legislation passed earlier this year, requires the FTC to create rules to implement the law by Feb. 22, 2010, to prevent deceptive marketing of the credit reports.

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