Nor is there reason, I often say, for most consumers to pay for credit-monitoring services that can cost $200 or more a year. If you're especially worried about identity theft, there are less expensive ways to limit your risk - such as a "security freeze" you can read about at each bureau's website.
After all that advice-mongering, I was disturbed to hear what happened to Mel Kreiner, a retired Bucks County accountant, when he tried to follow my suggestions - and wound up with more than $30 in unexpected credit-card charges from a company called ScoreSense. When he phoned to complain, ScoreSense canceled the charge. If he hadn't, he'd have paid $360 a year for credit monitoring.
"I got bamboozled," Kreiner told me. "The thing that bothers me is that I don't know how I got suckered in."
Kreiner apparently has company. An Internet search for ScoreSense displays dozens of complaints at sites such as RipoffReport.com. The Dallas Better Business Bureau says it has handled nearly 1,200 complaints about the company in the last year, and gives its parent, One Technologies L.P., an F because of factors such as 22 complaints the BBB counts as serious or unresolved.
One Technologies says the bureau's grade is unfair for a company that carefully discloses details of its products and fees.
"It's our position that the Dallas Better Business Bureau does not have a proper understanding of what we do," says Kevin Hain, One Technologies' compliance and escalation specialist. He says the number of complaints to the bureau and to state consumer-protection agencies "is less than 1 percent of the people who sign up and purchase our products."
Hain says ScoreSense charges a $1 "processing fee" when consumers accept its offer to "get your free credit scores from all 3 bureaus." The first monthly charge, $29.95, is imposed seven days later - "a seven-day free trial," Hain says. "As long as you call and cancel in the seven-day period, you're not charged. We refund the $1 - that's how we say it's free."
Kreiner didn't realize ScoreSense was imposing the $29.95 fee until after it appeared on his credit-card bill, but when he called to complain, the company still promised him a full refund. Even so, his story leaves an intriguing question: How did he get drawn in when he was simply trying to get his free annual reports? And therein lies a cautionary tale of its own - as much about the perils of the Internet and search ads as about credit-report add-ons.
To see what might have happened, I rechecked my own credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com. Each of the bureaus tried to pitch scores and other services - the so-called upselling that the Federal Trade Commission says they are allowed to do, online or on the phone, after free reports are ordered. But none of the pitches led me to ScoreSense.
Then I recalled something Kreiner had mentioned in passing: that he found the site indirectly, via a search, rather than by typing the address.
Plug "annual credit report" into Google or Bing, and pitches for ScoreSense - or one of more than 45 similar sites all owned by One Technologies - pop up prominently, labeled as ads and subtly shaded but above the official "central source" website.
Kreiner likely clicked on www.freescoreonline.com, a ScoreSense site with the pitch "Annual Credit Report - View Your Free Credit Scores."
The bottom line? You're welcome to buy a credit score - I do it occasionally myself, and we all like seeing our grades. You're free to pay whatever you want for credit monitoring, even if I don't advise it.
But watch those search ads carefully - and, as Kreiner did, your credit-card statements.
That free annual report really is free - not $1 for processing.
Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @jeffgelles on Twitter. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/inquiringconsumer.