Jeff Gelles: Experian.com caught up in the latest wave of typosquatting

Experian.com screen grab, site of one of the Big Three in the industry. The company has gotten caught up in the ongoing saga of typosquatters.
Experian.com screen grab, site of one of the Big Three in the industry. The company has gotten caught up in the ongoing saga of typosquatters.
Posted: September 09, 2013

Was Experian trying to cash in on innocent mistakes by luring consumers who mistyped AnnualCreditReport.com - the official source for free annual reports - to CreditReport.com, an Experian site that charges for credit data?

Nope, it was just an innocent mistake, company spokeswoman Susan Henson told me Friday, after Experian - one of the Big Three in the U.S. credit-reporting industry - emerged as a surprise player in the ongoing saga of "AnnualCreditReport.com vs. the Typosquatters."

Either way, it's a disturbing tale about digital buccaneers who pounce on errant Internet users trying to visit the official website, which was established in 2004 at Congress' behest to provide free annual reports from the nation's three main credit bureaus.

The buccaneers were busy early on. In mid-2005, within months of the central source's launch, the World Privacy Forum found more than 100 sites actively preying on errant typists. The next month, the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to operators of at least 130 such sites.

Did they ever succeed? It's not clear. But if so, the Internet's Wild West culture has reemerged, and so far there's scant evidence that federal regulators are bothering to fight back.

Consumer 13.0 first learned about the new wave of typosquatting in May, thanks to Moorestown's Curt Miller. The retired computer programmer left an n out of AnnualCreditReport.com's address, and wound up on a site that seemed like a trap.

At the time, I found 11 such typo addresses that verified Miller's account. A third n in "annual" produced the same result, as did at least nine errant double strikes of a letter.

All 11 led to FreeScore360.com, which offers instant access to credit reports and scores for a $1 "processing fee." The catch was that consumers had to agree to a "free trial" of a credit-monitoring service called ScoreSense, owned by Dallas' One Technologies L.P., which costs $29.95 a month.

One Technologies' Shon Dellinger was apologetic, blaming Miller's experience on an affiliated company acting "in violation of our third-party marketing guidelines." He promised to shut down referrals from the addresses.

Dellinger declined to identify the typosquatter, citing "contractual agreements." An Internet search led only to Whois Privacy Services, an Australian business that shields actual owners of Web addresses.

For weeks after my column, the 11 sites did indeed seem inactive. But a check last week showed the buccaneers were back - but this time, the typo sites were sending traffic to one of the biggest names in the business: Experian and its CreditReport.com site, which pitches, "Get Your FREE Credit Score AND $1 REPORT IN SECONDS!"

Miller, for one, wasn't surprised. "From what I have seen, the Big Three try to do the same thing," he said. "They advertise a free credit report, and try to get you to sign up for some sort of credit-monitoring service."

Henson said Experian was unaware of the referrals to CreditReport.com until I asked about them. "It's something that we will look into immediately, and we will put a stop to it," she told me. "Certainly, our goal is to ensure that consumers are directed to the site that they intend to be directed to."

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said the new evidence of typosquatting - especially to the benefit of a major company like Experian - was evidence of basic flaws in the system that need correcting.

"I don't think Congress ever anticipated that companies would run around purchasing typo sites that would misdirect consumers and allow them to keep consumers from exercising their rights," Dixon said. "This is not what Congress intended at all."

There's rich irony in Experian's role - even if it's also just a victim. In a 2009 arbitration, its ConsumerInfo.com subsidiary won control of more than 1,000 typosquatter addresses similar to FreeCreditReport.com, which itself has drawn criticism for confusing consumers seeking their genuinely free reports.

The basic problem is a market failure. The Big Three don't profit from free annual reports, so they don't have an incentive to protect the central source the same way.

If regulators can't or won't act, it's time for Congress to do so - perhaps by demanding what it should have originally: a central source that's not an easily confused dot-com domain.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jeffgelles. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/consumer.

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