NYT’s Ben Stein Hawks Misleading Credit Score Site

Felix Salmon is right: What’s a New York Times business columnist doing in an ad for a company that uses misleading tactics to lure customers into a “free” service that actually costs money?

More to the point: What’s a New York Times business columnist doing in an ad at all?

Ben Stein, who writes the “Everybody’s Business” column on Sundays, is, of course, a jack of all trades. He’s had his own game show, written speeches for Nixon, and, most classically, was the droning teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Here’s the Times’s bug on Stein, which runs at the bottom of his columns: “Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist.”

If the Times for some reason allows him to continue to pen his column, the it had better add “paid shill for anti-consumer corporations” to the list.

It’s worth quoting Salmon at length here:

A few points are worth noting here. First, the score itself is not very useful to consumers. What’s useful is the report — if there’s an error on the report, then the consumer can try to rectify it. Secondly, and much more importantly, if you want a free credit report, there’s only one place to go: annualcreditreport.com. That’s the place where the big three credit-rating agencies will give you a genuinely free copy of your credit report once a year, as required by federal law.

You won’t be surprised to hear that freescore.com is not free: in order to get any information out of them at all, you have to authorize them to charge you a $29.95 monthly fee. They even extract a dollar out of you up front, just to make sure that money is there.

Stein, here, has become a predatory bait-and-switch merchant, dangling a “free” credit report in front of people so that he can sock them with a massive monthly fee for, essentially, doing nothing at all. Naturally, the people who take him up on this offer will be those who can least afford it.

That’s all dead on and it really looks bad for The New York Times.

I can tell you I’ve gone looking for the real free credit report before and gotten halfway into one of these freescore.com type things before realizing what it was. It’s a predatory tactic, as Salmon rightly calls it, to part people trying to check their credit scores from their money, and enough people do it to allow them to put all these annoying ads up.

I’d love to see how much of freescore.com’s business is made up of one-month-only customers, who get slapped with the $29.95 fee and cancel immediately. I mean, who wants or needs to pay $30 a month for a credit-watch service?

The practice is so shady, it’s being regulated in the new credit-card bill: These folks will have to disclose in ads that the only place to actually get a free credit report is at annualcreditreport.com. This is exactly what the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is supposed to be for.

I got on CNBC’s Rick Santelli a bit last week for appearing at a “get rich trading” seminar. But that’s nothing compared to this Stein ad.

I have questions out to the Times on whether it’s kosher for regular columnists to appear in ads and especially ones for companies like these. I’ll update this post with its response when I hear back.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.