Times Maintains Consumer Credit Drumbeat

The Times has done a really nice job exploring dubious practices in the credit-card industry, not to mention efforts to reform it. These are all subjects close to my heart.

Today it has a new installment in its “Card Game” series with Frontline, this one on the sneaky ways consumer-credit giant Experian and others snooker consumers who are entitled to a free credit report from the government into clicking on freecreditreport.com (don’t click!), a lure to get them to buy an unnecessary credit-tracking service.

Yet for the vast majority of consumers whose credit status doesn’t change quickly or drastically, a monitoring service is a waste of money, these critics say. Keeping a close eye on your bills and checking your credit report several times a year is enough. And that can be done without spending a penny because the government requires the three major credit bureaus — Experian, which owns freecreditreport.com, Equifax and TransUnion — to provide one free report annually to consumers.

I didn’t realize the Federal Trade Commission has already locked horns with Experian, to little avail:

So far, the F.T.C. has focused mostly on the free credit report come-on. In the last five years, Experian has paid $1.25 million to settle F.T.C. charges that it misled consumers who may have been seeking their free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com, but ended up paying for a subscription on the similarly named freecreditreport.com.

The Times focuses nicely on the more insidious dynamics that drive the market for credit-tracking: consumer confusion and anxiety, caused, of course, by arbitrary and opaque practices of companies like Experian.

In many ways, this is the perfect moment for companies like Experian to convince consumers that they need to track their credit closely. Many people who fell behind on bills in the economic maelstrom worry about how their credit report will look to lenders now. A number of employers reject candidates with poor credit, too.

Even millions of the most careful consumers worry that they may not have escaped recent damage to their credit files: card issuers, in an attempt to limit risk, have cut credit limits, canceled dormant accounts and made other moves that can harm credit scores.

I like the way this gets at the informational asymmetries in this murky market, which renders harried amateurs perennially several steps behind the pros who do this all day for a living:

Philip Neustrom, a 25-year-old software engineer in San Francisco, canceled the Experian service after paying six months of $14.95 monthly fees and never using the monitoring. “I knew they had roped me into this thing after I started getting these e-mails,” he said. It took him a while to get around to canceling, he added, because he was busy and “there are only so many things you can do in a day.”


The graphic is handy, too.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.