Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly named the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
When life gives you lemons, I say peel a twist off one of those suckers, grab the gin and use that martini to toast the important life lessons it teaches.
Which brings us to the new $20 million settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and One Technologies LP.
One Technologies scammed at least 200,000 consumers by offering “free” credit scores and then billing them with a recurring $29.95 monthly credit monitoring service that, the FTC found, those consumers never ordered.
Even if you’re not one of the victims, there’s a lot to be learned here.
The first lesson is to check your bank and credit card statements every month to spot bogus charges, which won’t cost you a penny. If you see something, contact the bank or card issuer and explain that you never authorized charges for the Chia Pet of the Month Club, although you do think it was very lifelike for them to seed the Donald Trump model with Cheez Whiz-tinted crabgrass.
It’s gonna be yuge
The second lesson is that it’s now getting much easier to get your credit score without paying for it or getting talked (or crammed) into buying credit monitoring.
First, at the urging of FICO, the company that invented credit scores, and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, banks and credit cards that use scores can give them to you for free, sometimes printing it right on your monthly statement. So far, more than a dozen card-issuers offer free scores, according to this list from CreditCards.com.
In addition, you can get free scores from CreditKarma.com, CreditSesame.com, Quizzle.com and myBankrate.com. There are many different versions of credit scores, and while some are close to the original gold-standard FICO score, these free ones often are based on your credit at just one credit bureau. You can get a free FICO score at CreditScorecard.com, run by Discover, but that’s based on just your Experian credit score.
Lesson three is that your credit score isn’t your credit report, and vice versa. Your score is based on your report, but it won’t necessarily change if you have been a victim of identity theft.
If someone opens a line of credit in your name but hasn’t run up the bill or defaulted on the payment, it could actually improve your score. So, checking one of your three big-bureau reports every four months is a good way to see what’s happening on your accounts for free. You can do that at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. Avoid anywhere else like the plague.
Or election coverage
Lesson four is that while you can monitor your own credit for free without a costly service, for some people it’s worth paying for credit monitoring — it just shouldn’t be crammed onto one of your accounts.
For one thing, credit monitoring offers additional ID theft protections, notes Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, a nationwide nonprofit that offers free help to consumers.
That includes one service that scans online communications for signs that your child might be a victim of cyberbullying. But that’s only a good deal if you have kids, so look at what you need and what is and isn’t covered when buying monitoring, just as if you were buying insurance.
As for all the free stuff you can do for yourself, it comes down to making sure you do it.
“There are a lot of things you can do for free but some people choose to pay for them, like a dog groomer,” Velasquez says. “I love my pooch and I could take the time to bathe her at home for free or I can pay someone to do it for me.”
Lesson five in our credit protection workshop today is that consumers clearly need to have the right to check their own credit scores for free. That way, folks wouldn’t get roped in to this kind of scam in the first place. It makes no sense that we have the right to check our credit report for free but not our credit scores. That is just dumb but, for now at least, it’s the law.
But that law prompted 200,000 folks to get scammed simply for attempting to view their own data and what the huge profit-making credit bureaus are saying about them. The law needs to be changed to give consumers the right to access for free.
So let me go peel another lemon, because I know that’s an idea we all can drink to.