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I Googled “free credit report.” It led me into a financial nightmare. Don’t make the same mistake.
The U.S. government requires each of the three major credit rating companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to give you a free copy of your credit report at least once a year. In a change made due to the pandemic, you are entitled to free weekly online credit reports until the end of 2023.
There’s a government-authorized website, AnnualCreditReport.com, where you can see those files from the three credit companies. But you can’t count on Google to point you in the right direction.
If you search “free credit report” or similar terms, what you’ll probably see first are links to websites that pay Google to siphon your time, your personal information and possibly your money. Essentially, Google’s advertising steers you away from a free service to which you are legally entitled.
Google says these ads comply with the company’s policies. But they are a disservice to you.
I spent time following ads on Google, Microsoft Bing and search engine DuckDuckGo that I expected to take me to my free credit reports. When I clicked, I landed on websites that made it difficult or impossible to see my credit reports for free. They were trying to sell me financial services that most people do not need.
Google is the starting point for much of the world’s information and the most lucrative business in internet history. The misdirection when you search for government-mandated credit reports shows how Google can betray your trust.
The government-authorized website for free credit reports cautions people not to be tricked by impostor sites. The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces truth in advertising, also warns people to avoid offers of credit reports from sites other than AnnualCreditReport.com. Google is part of the problem.
If you only do one thing, bookmark the government-authorized website AnnualCreditReport.com and never search Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo for anything related to credit reports. It shouldn’t be this way.
‘Free credit reports’ that are not free nor credit reports
Experts in personal finance, including my colleague Michelle Singletary, recommend that we regularly look at our credit reports.
These compilations of our loans, credit cards and bill payment history are what banks, mobile providers, landlords and employers might use to check our track record with money.
You want to know what these financial assessments say, and try to fix them if they’re wrong. And when crooks steal your personal information, reviewing your credit reports might be the only way to spot a thief who is taking out a loan in your name.
AnnualCreditReport.com is run by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, and the government mandates that they maintain that website for free credit reports. (You can look for your credit reports on the website of Equifax and the other two but the companies will probably try to sell you something.)
If you start your online hunt on Google, here’s what you might see. On a recent search for “free credit report,” the first link I saw was an advertisement — Google puts the word “sponsored” to show it’s an ad — to the website FreeScoreOnline.com.
This ad pitched access to credit reports from the three credit rating companies. I clicked, followed the steps to enter my name, address, Social Security number and date of birth. The site asked a few multiple choice questions to confirm my identity.
The next screen asked for my credit card number. The fine print said I would be charged $29.95 a month after a 7-day free trial period.
Wait. Stop. How did this happen?
Again, every American is entitled to access credit reports for free at least once a year. I had searched Google to find those free credit reports. And a company paid Google to point me to what turned out to be a paid subscription to financial services including identity theft insurance, credit scores and credit reports.
Those services might be useful to some people, but they are not what I wanted. That’s probably not what most people Googling “free credit report” would be looking for, either.
In my Google searches, I found the government-authorized AnnualCreditReport.com after scrolling past three or four ads for other finance websites.
One Technologies LLC, which operates FreeScoreOnline.com and other finance sites such as ScoreSense.com and NationalCreditReport.com, said that “savvy consumers want more information and opportunities to monitor their credit reports and scores and make informed decisions about their financial health.”
It is my responsibility to protect myself from products that I do not need or sites that harvest my data for profit. And we’ve all learned to tune out ads that seem sketchy.
But many people do not know where to find their credit reports for free. Google capitalizes on our uncertainty by taking money to funnel me to sites like FreeScoreOnline and makes it confusing to find AnnualCreditReport.com, which is required by law to serve my interests.
What Google says about credit report copycat sites
Other finance sites that advertised free credit reports on Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo were also unhelpful.
Experian — which is a partner in the government-mandated AnnualCreditReport.com — also bought ads for people like me searching for free credit reports, including for an Experian website called freecreditreport.com.
Experian.com and the company’s freecreditreport.com tried several times to sell me a subscription that included credit monitoring, identity theft insurance, a bill negotiation service and credit score tracking. I did eventually find one of my three credit reports.
Experian didn’t respond to my request for comment.
Google doesn’t allow companies to advertise services that duplicate what you can receive directly from a “government or a delegated provider.” The company said this ban doesn’t apply to credit reports.
That’s because while the state of California, for example, is the only place where you can obtain a state driver’s license, lots of companies can show you a credit report.
“We have strict ads policies that govern the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms,” Google said in a statement.
“For example, we do not allow ads that mislead or scam users and we remove these ads when we find them. Credit reporting services that offer free reports are allowed to advertise provided they comply with all of our policies.”
A Microsoft spokesman said the Bing ads I saw appeared to comply with the company’s policies. DuckDuckGo referred my questions to Microsoft, which handles advertisements on DuckDuckGo. Microsoft said it was investigating what I saw.
(Send me an email to let me know about your experience searching for credit reports.)
What you can do and what Google can do
Mike Litt, who specializes in consumer financial protection for the advocacy group U.S. PIRG, said credit monitoring alerts, credit score services, dark web monitoring and other financial offerings that I was pitched are mostly a waste of money.
“These companies are benefiting from consumer confusion,” he said.
Litt said that the best thing you can do to protect your finances is to freeze your credit with each of three major credit companies.
If you freeze your credit, no one can check your creditworthiness to apply for a loan or rent a home in your name unless you give permission. This discourages criminals from impersonating you and sticking you with unpaid debt or bills.
You need to set up an account to freeze credit separately with each credit bureau. Follow the links for Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
Freezing and unfreezing your credit is free by law. Freezes aren’t an ironclad protection from crooks but Litt said Americans would be safer if credit freezes were the automatic standard for everyone.
And if you want to see your credit reports, go to AnnualCreditReport.com, the single authorized website for your legally mandated credit reports.
Also consider using the ad-free search engine Neeva for your web searches related to credit, including credit reports, credit monitoring and credit scores. When I searched Neeva for “free credit report,” the first link was to the government-authorized website.
Google and Microsoft also have a responsibility to give you good information — and in some cases they refuse whole categories of ads that get in the way of essential information. Google, for example, doesn’t allow ads for credit repair services in the United States and at one point stopped showing ads to people searching for drug treatment centers.