News Article on FACTA Changes and "Free Reports"
Date Posted: 11/30/2004
Consumers in some parts of the United States will be entitled to one free credit report each year beginning Dec. 1, using a Web site called AnnualCreditReport.com, the nation's credit bureaus announced Tuesday. Consumers can also call a toll-free number or mail a written request. The free annual credit checkups were mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, signed into law last December by President Bush. The law includes a number of provisions designed to fend off identity theft, which hits millions of U.S. consumers each year.
Currently, a number of Web sites offer what are described as free credit reports, but all require trial subscriptions to credit monitoring services. The new Web site, mandated by federal law, will be marketing-free. "This is an important new right for consumers," said Peggy Twohig, assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of financial practices.
Only Western states, for now
Not all consumers can get their credit reports beginning in December. Earlier this year, the FTC issued guidelines that allows the bureaus to roll out the new feature in stages, to avoid overwhelming the new system. Only residents in the Western part of the United States will be able to access the reports on Dec. 1. The region includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The Midwest gets added to the system in March, the South in June. Residents in Eastern states will have to wait the longest, until September. The staged rollout was designed to help the credit bureaus deal with what may be a deluge of traffic when the system launches, Twohig said. "There are about 200 million people who could take advantage of this, so, because it's brand new, the commission thought it was important to have it roll out so the bureaus can adjust and build up to nationwide demand," Twohig said. "No one knows how many consumers are going to jump online. It's possible the demand could be considerable."
The toll free number consumers can call is 877-322-8228. Written requests can be sent to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P. O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
The next step: Correcting errors
The launching of the free credit report service will be watched carefully by consumer advocates. Several studies have shown that credit bureau data is riddled with errors. A study published in October by the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups indicated four in five credit reports contain some error. Mistakes can be as simple as a mistyped address, or as complicated as a list of defaulted loans, taken out by an identity thief in the victim's name and never repaid. Privacy advocate Rob Douglas urged consumers to quickly take advantage of the Web site, and be prepared for some unhappy urprises. "I think there will be a more than a substantial number of people who will discover there are errors on their credit report," he said. "Whenever I'm asked what it is someone can do to protect themselves from identity theft, the first thing on the list is regularly checking their credit report. You don't want to discover the problem while you are in the process of a major purchase." Consumers can dispute errors by following the instructions listed on the credit reports they receive. Procedures may differ slightly among companies. Twohig acknowledged the possibility that many consumers will find, and then dispute, errors on their reports.
In 2000, the three credit bureaus were fined $2.5 million by the FTC for not answering calls to toll-free numbers set up so consumers could dispute inaccuracies in their credit reports. The system was overwhelmed by complaints, and not enough employees were hired to handle the call volume, the FTC alleged. Last year, Equifax was fined again for the same problem.
Twohig said she was hopeful the bureaus would be prepared this time for an increase in complaints following the rollout of free credit reports. "The bureaus are aware that's a likely result," she said. "The whole idea of rollout is so they can see how it goes and increase staff, so they can adjust as the nation comes online." Officials at Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union were unavailable for interviews on Wednesday, as the long holiday weekend began. Consumer attorney David Szwak, who regularly sues credit bureaus on behalf of consumers, said free credit reports are a good idea -- but that's only a first step. The process of fixing errors can be painstaking, he said. "Just because you get a copy of the credit report doesn't mean you can get the errors corrected," he said. "What I would tell consumers is as soon as you are able to, get a copy of the report. Then, be sure you dispute everything that's wrong on there and follow up. And if don't get satisfaction, find an attorney. (Your credit) is your most valuable property right."
Source(s): By Bob Sullivan; Technology correspondent. MSNBC