Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Free Weekly Credit Reports? Yes.


You don't have to wait 12 months to get your credit report - just next week!

I had a reminder on my calendar to download my Transunion credit report.  At the suggestion of a reader, I set up my calendar to remind me three times a year to do this - one for each credit reporting agency.  That way, I am alerted to changes in my credit history more often.

Of course, the point is moot.  My credit reports are all frozen (more on that later) which is something everyone should do.  Also, since I am debt-free, I have no real need for credit, other than to "steal the cheese" with some 10% off, one-year-same-as-cash deal on a new appliance or something (which, as I have noted before, is just a tasty baited mousetrap for the unwary -  a bear trap, really).

But I do it anyway - out of habit mostly.  I was pleasantly surprised this morning when I logged on to (the only legit free credit reporting site) and saw a banner indicating that credit reports were now free on a weekly basis.  So I tried it and it worked - sort of.  The only one that didn't work was Experion, which claimed there was some sort of problem and told me to send a written request. Oddly enough, Experion was the only reporting agency that I had not queried in over 12 months.

Transunion and Equifax both coughed up the goods - after a two-step authentication process.  Equifax helpfully provided a "summary" page so I didn't have to scroll through a dozen pages of individual reports from numerous lenders.  Transunion provided long form, Experion, like I said, did bubkis.

This is an improvement over the old system as you can order your credit report at almost any time, rather than after the one-year anniversary from the last report.  It also is illustrative of how the whole industry has changed over time.  It was an industry created in my lifetime and for much of that time, the various agencies protected the data like a State Secret.

Then, the government stepped in (Boo!  Hiss!  Gubmnent Bad! - right?) because people were being maligned by inaccurate credit report data and not only did they not have an avenue to correct it, but they weren't even allowed to look at it!  I remember those days, when a car salesman would tell me he would "lose his job" if he showed me the ultra-secret credit report with my data on it.  Not only that, since the consumer couldn't see their own data, they had no idea if someone was fraudulently using their identity - until it was too late.

So annual credit reports were born.  You could see your data, once a year, by mail, if you requested it and paid a small fee - or for free if you were denied credit.  It was a hassle, but you could do it.  And was next, which made the process easier.  But of course, "free enterprise" decided to step in and offer "free credit reports!" on the television using catchy jingles and directing people to a site that was totally not free.  It took years for that shit to die down.

Of course, the credit reporting agencies were not giving up without a fight.  Your "credit score" was created using proprietary algorithms and they claimed this as protected Intellectual Property, which, as an IP Attorney, makes my skin crawl - almost as much as HP putting unnecessary chips in their toner cartridges so they can claim copyright protection long after their Patents have expired.  Do not buy an HP printer! Once the go-to source for printing, HP has systematically destroyed its own near-monopoly.  What a shame for such a storied old company - but I digress.

But of course, others figured out the "algorithm" or should I say - algorithms - as there are multiple credit scores, depending on whether you are buying a house or a car or getting a credit card.  And of course, banks have their own system of grading customers as well.  But regardless, anyone can create their own "score" system and they do.  My bank and credit card companies give me "scores" that are not "Fair Issac" (who is anything but fair - right?) but track closely enough - within a few points - that it doesn't really matter.

And how the score is calculated is insane.  You pay off a mortgage or car loan or are debt-free and your score may go down.  Rack up some debt, and you score may go up!  It is indeed a mystery.

But following closely on credit scores was the idea of "locking" your credit report to prevent identity theft. Now, identity theft is a real buzzword these days, or at least it was a few years ago when "journalists" (which is a word that should be pronounced with a silent "j") use alarming headlines to make it seem that we are all one step away from having our identity stolen, and some "criminal" will buy a mansion and a Ferrari and live high on the hog and we will be on the hook to pay for it all for the rest of our lives.  I kid you not about these articles - it is only on the last page, in tiny type that they state the obvious - that you are not liable for loans you never took out and banks that recklessly loan money to people without checking their identification are liable instead.

It happens, too.  Mark was at a real estate closing and the closing attorney said, "Now, I just need to see your driver's license or other ID and make a copy of it."  The husband and wife said, "Oh, we left that in the car!" and went out of the room and never came back.  People do try to sell houses they don't own and pocket the cash.  Sometimes it actually works, but only if people are unwary.

Two other things were overlooked when selling the over-hyped myth of identity theft.  First, the credit industry started calling routine credit card fraud, "identity theft" when years ago it was just called credit card fraud.  Someone copies down your credit card number and charges stuff on your card.  And again, you are not liable for those charges, so dispute them, cancel the card, and order a new card.  Period.

Second, most of the real identity theft that occurs isn't from strangers but friends, family members, or co-workers.  Your cousin steals your driver's license and credit card and goes on a shopping spree.  They sort of look like you so they get away with it - until you notice.  A drug-addicted husband takes out a loan, using his estranged wife as co-signer (forging her signature) as happened to a lawyer friend of mine.  It is much easier to steal an "identity" from someone you know, as you don't have to guess their mother's maiden name or the name of their first pet.  Bonus points if you look similar in appearance, which can happen with siblings and close relatives.

So yea, identity theft is overblown to sell online articles and "credit protector" services.  Fear (as we will discuss in my next posting) is a powerful way to get at people's pocketbooks.  Fortunately, big bad onerous government once again stepped in and forced credit reporting agencies to offer a "credit lock" service, which originally may have required a small fee to lock and unlock your credit report, but today is mostly free. Once "locked" the notation appears on your credit report, and most legitimate lenders will not loan money to you until you unlock it.  And some agencies allow you to unlock it for a set period (days, weeks, months) and then automatically re-lock.  This comes in handy if you are shopping for a car or house or whatever, and don't want to deal with locking and re-locking all the time.

Should you lock your credit history with all three agencies?  I say "YES" - for everyone.  It protects you from the worst credit criminal of all - yourself.  When you make taking out new credit a royal pain-in-the-ass, well, you tend to do it less. When the chirpy checkout clerk (who gets a commission) at the big-box store offers you 10% off your purchase if you take out a credit card with the company, it is tempting to say "yes" to an onerous loan agreement.  If your score is locked and you realize you'll have to go to the score company site, remember your login information, and dick around with unlocking it (and make sure you get the site that the store is using to check credit reports), you are less likely to fall into the trap.

On the other hand, if clicking YES on a screen is all it takes to take on another credit card DEBT, well, that's how people end up with tens of thousands of dollars in revolving credit at onerous interest rates.  Time was, it was seen as a sign of financial success to have a wallet full of credit cards - my Dad used to think so, anyway.  Today, it is seen as a sign of financial weakness - of lack of self-control or resolve.  Remember how wallets used to have that plastic fold-out deal that was three-feet long, for holding credit cards?  They don't sell them no more, do they?

But locking your credit, which is largely free these days, does give one "peace of mind" so to speak, that no one will take out credit in your name, which is more of a hassle than any real risk of you having to pay back a loan you never took out.  Of course, this doesn't protect you from ordinary credit card theft - but checking your credit card balance daily and getting notifications via e-mail and text of any new charges - and immediately disputing bogus charges - is a sure-fire way to avoid any problems with credit card theft.

So yea, it is great you can check your credit report on a weekly basis.  On the other hand, you shouldn't have to, not if you're checking your bank balance and credit card balance on a weekly basis, instead.