Credit Site Frustrates Consumers

When free credit reports finally became available to East Coast consumers on Sept. 1, Michelle Gockley didn’t waste time. The next day, she went online to www.annualcreditreport.com, the site run by the three national credit agencies to meet the new federal rule.

The Mohnton, Pa., resident got one report — and a double dose of frustration many consumers would echo.

The “Central Source,” as the venture is named, isn’t just for the Web-connected. Free reports are also available by phone (1-877-322-8228) and mail (Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281).

If you have access to the Internet, it’s the fastest way to get your free reports. You’ll see them immediately online.

The Web site is also the only easy way to purchase a credit score to supplement your report — a problem that rankles some consumer advocates.

But as Gockley found, the site can be maddeningly imperfect, even if all you want are your free reports.

Gockley was checking for her husband, Lamar, since most of the family’s accounts are in his name, as are those for the family’s dairy farm.

She had no problem getting his Equifax report through the joint site, which reroutes visitors to the companies’ own sites. But she ran into trouble with Experian and Trans Union.

Just as Equifax had done, both asked for personal information, such as Social Security numbers. Then each asked “security” questions, designed to ensure that a visitor is who she says she is, not a data thief or someone who ran across a lost wallet.

Gockley and her husband knew the right answers, of course. But the sites were not persuaded.

Experian asked about Lamar’s employment history, then told her she’d answered incorrectly — hard to imagine, since her husband has worked only on the farm since high school.

To add insult to injury, Trans Union’s site asked obscure questions, such as the account number on a vehicle loan the couple paid off in 2001, then told her to check her credit report for answers. “I was trying to get my credit reports,” Gockley protests.

To be sure, some of the couple’s circumstances are unusual, including that their farm straddles a county line. They live in one county, but most of their land is in the other — an inconsistency that could give any database a fit.

But their story highlights a flaw in the system that predates the Central Source: Whether you’re ordering a free report or paying cash, the credit agencies make it virtually impossible to speak with an actual human being.

Alas, the companies can do that because we need them more than they need us. If you want to see what a lender will know about you, you’ve got nowhere else to turn. And don’t forget that your credit history now may also influence a prospective insurer, employer or landlord, or be the first sign you’ve fallen victim to identity theft.

You need to see your reports, so don’t give up. A few tips for coping:

Apply from home, both for privacy and to have old files at your fingertips. Don Girard, an Experian spokesman, says the questions Gockley was asked were typical, even the account number on the old loan. “Absolutely – 2001 is not all that long ago,” he says. “We have to authenticate you.”

If you don’t know, don’t guess. You could be locked out of your own file.

Security is slightly easier for requests made by phone or mail. The reason: Your report will be mailed to you, not routed to a computer that could be anywhere in the world.

One caveat from Patty Hasson, who runs Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley: If you order free reports by mail or phone, you can’t add on a credit-score purchase.

Hasson discovered the problem while planning a set of know-your-credit-report classes next month (for details, call (800)-989-2227). She wanted to ensure that scores were available offline. The answer: Yes, but only via separate letters or calls to each company.

Tips for getting your credit report:

Apply from home: This ensures your privacy and allows you access to your old files.

Don’t guess if you don’t know the answer: Incorrectly guessing the answers to authentication questions could cause you to be locked out of your file.

Make your request by phone or mail: Security is a bit more lax because there is not the threat of your credit information getting lost in cyberspace.