AnnualCreditReport.com is the only website for free credit reports that is mandated and authorized by federal government, but it’s not without problems.
In 2003 President George W. Bush signed into law the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act. One of its provisions required each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) to provide consumers free access to their credit reports every 12 months.
This act gave birth to the AnnualCreditReport.com website, which contrary to popular belief, is not a government-run site. Rather, it is operated by Central Source LLC, which is a joint venture created by the three credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Be warned: their website does NOT provide free credit scores! If you try to get your scores through it, you may have to enroll in a dubious “free” trial with the credit bureaus that’s extremely hard to cancel during the 7-day grace period. After that you will be charged.
There are only four ways for consumers to get their real FICO scores. The vast majority of website, including the offers from the bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com, use imitation scoring models that are not FICOs. What they offer you is NOT used by lenders or creditors; it’s merely a score for “educational purposes.”
If you want to get your real FICO, there are several sources licensed to provide it directly to consumers as of Q1 2015:
- (PAID) Pay $19.95 to MyFICO (FICO’s website) for each score from each credit bureau every single time you want to check it.
- (PAID) Pay $19.95 to Equifax every single time you want to check your Equifax FICO.
- (PAID) Pay $21.95 per month for Experian’s credit-monitoring service, which includes access to your Experian FICO score.
- (FREE) With a Discover card, you get your TransUnion FICO for free every month on your statement. Barclaycard and (as of January 2015) Citi also provide free FICO scores to cardholders.
Even though checking your reports through the AnnualCreditReport.com website won’t get you your scores, it’s a great way to check your credit health and to make sure all the information is accurate. However, since going live, the site has been the source of quite a few complaints:
Complaint #1: Confusing name
The similarly titled FreeCreditReport.com took a lot of criticism for its similar sounding name (side note: they now focus on their other site, FreeCreditScore.com instead). But in all fairness, it’s not like AnnualCreditReport.com has the best name either.
Why? Because with the word “annual” in there, many people assume that means once per year. They think it means they can check their credit report from each of the three bureaus once per calendar year (example: Check Equifax once in 2015, once in 2016, and so forth).
Unfortunately, that’s not how it actually works. Rather than going by calendar year, it goes by every 12 months.
When the end of the calendar year rolls around – like the fourth quarter – I regularly hear from consumers who rush to check all three credit reports, thinking the clock will reset on January 1. It’s not until the following year when they discover they will have to wait twelve full months after checking before they can do it again.
Self disclosure time: At one point I even believed this was how it worked and made that same mistake. It’s best to stagger your requests by 3 or 4 months, in other words, so you can check all three credit bureaus once per year. That way you can maintain a rolling status check on your credit and not have to wait a full year to see it again.
Complaint #2: Misleading credit score ads
When using the Annual Credit Report website, you will be bombarded with paid ads; some clearly identified as such, others not so much.
The TransUnion report is the one I hear the most complaints about. Here’s why…
The “I want my free credit score” is an advertisement and so is the Score tab which is next to the Report tab at the top.
Click and you will be taken to this page (I took this screenshot in an earlier year):
It’s not until after you click the “FREE SCORE” button above where you are taken to a page which fully explains that you are actually enrolling in a 7-day trial. Yeah, technically it is free but if you don’t cancel, you will be automatically billed at the regular price (which was $14.95 per month last I checked).
Now in all honesty, I actually don’t have a problem with these types of “free” trial offers. I don’t think they are a scam as long the terms are clearly and prominently identified (in order words, if the consumer truly knows what they’re signing up for). But, the way this “free” trial is displayed *might* mislead a customer and be confusing to those who erroneously believe they’re on a government site.
Complaint #3: Website not working
I have heard people allege that there is some sort of AnnualCreditReport.com scam going on when they can’t access the website. Their theory is that it’s allegedly used as a trick, to deter them from the free report and, instead, go to credit bureau’s website directly and buy a report.
Coincidentally, while writing this review I actually encountered Experian not being available (pictured left).
But does this make AnnualCreditReport.com a scam? Definitely not. That conspiracy theory is nonsense.
When a bureau is unavailable like this, it’s probably due to routine site maintenance or some other temporary issue. If that happens, just check back later and it should be working. For me, that message was gone 20 minutes later.
Conclusion? This is frustrating to encounter but don’t worry, this is NOT a scam. Just be patient and return a bit later.
Complaint #4: Can’t confirm your ID
A couple times when I’ve used the AnnualCreditReport.com website, I wasn’t able to pull all my reports. A message would be spit back saying they can’t confirm my identity and to get the report through this site, I would have to jump through hoops to validate my ID. If I recall correctly, it involved mailing in proof.
On the forum I have seen people say there is a scam going on when this happens. But it’s not a scam or trick. The truth is that they really do have to validate you’re the real deal before handing over your personal report.
Complaint #5: Peddling identity theft protection
Thanks to all those TV commercials for LifeLock and Identity Guard, the business of selling monthly ID protection subscriptions seems to be hotter than ever (but it’s debatable whether they’re justified).
So I guess it comes as no surprise that we’re getting bombarded with ID theft prevention ads when all we want to do is get our free credit reports.
But at the end of the day…
…this is still by far the best site to get your credit reports for free. Despite the complaints, AnnualCreditReport.com is NOT a scam.
Sure, the quality of AnnualCreditReport.com might not be the best, but it’s still the only legit place you can get a truly free report without having to enroll in some trial offer… as long as you don’t do so accidentally!
But if you want your FICO for free, you should get a Discover It or one of these offers from Barclays:
Updated Dec. 30, 2014