Those Free Credit Reports: Be careful when you opt for them

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Are you a bad typist? Or a lousy speller? If so, you might want to avoid using the Internet to obtain your credit report. Just one misspelled word could land you in the clutches of a sneaky marketer or maybe even an identity thief.

Many Americans began flocking to the Internet to access their credit reports after Congress passed legislation in 2003 that allowed consumers to obtain free copies. Once a year, anybody can order a gratis credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Obviously, it’s a smart idea to take advantage of this opportunity. By reviewing your credit report annually, you can spot mistakes and search for signs that some low-life identify thief has burrowed into your credit profile.

In theory, obtaining a credit report online should be a snap. Many of us, after all, buy stuff online all the time. It certainly wouldn’t require the kind of skill necessary to outbid someone for an Elvis Presley beach towel in the waning moments of an eBay auction. (When I checked, there were still six towels available.) But what should be a no-brainer has become something else entirely for consumers who stray onto impostor Web sites.

For the record, only one legitimate site passes out the free reports. The online address of the federally mandated site is www.annualcreditreport.com. I just double- and triple-checked that address because getting it wrong is what has created headaches for plenty of people. According to the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public interest research organization in San Diego, Calif., at least 233 impostor sites exist. And these credit report sites have been multiplying like cockroaches. When the forum went hunting for bogus sites in February, it found 96 new impostor domains.

These fake sites are counting on consumers to unwittingly share their personal data. This can happen after someone stumbles on to one of these domains by typing in the wrong Web address. You can also be led astray if you use a search engine and type in “free credit report.”

What’s the motivation behind these bogus sites?
Some of the domain creators seek to obtain personal data from you, such as your Social Security number, which conceivably could be used to steal your identity. Others sell the information that consumers provide them to companies, which use the data for marketing pitches.

Some of these destinations have been created by the credit bureaus themselves. It can be tough telling the difference between a deceptive site and the real McCoy. Some impostor domains, according to the World Privacy Forum, steal credit bureau logos and use trademarked names and symbols to con visitors into thinking their sites are legit. Luckily, there are some simple solutions to this problem: Type in the correct Web address or skip the Internet altogether. Instead of going online, request a credit report by calling 877-322-8228.

You can also mail your request to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105283, Atlanta, GA 30348-5283. If you’re going to receive your credit report by mail, request that the document contain only the last four numbers of your Social Security number.