The federal government's consumer finance watchdog on Thursday announced a $3 million fine against Experian, one of the country's three largest credit bureaus, for misrepresenting the value of certain credit scores to consumers.
If this announcement is giving you a sense of deja vu, you're not alone: On January 3, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a similar action against Equifax and TransUnion, the other two major credit bureaus, for very similar allegedly misleading behavior.
Like in the January complaint against TransUnion and Equifax, the CFPB alleges Experian made some of their offerings seem better than they were. In many cases, the CFPB says, Experian made it seem that people were buying the actual credit scores that get used by lenders — everyone from credit card companies to student loan servicers — when the scores they purchased were actually only intended to be used for "educational purposes."
What that means is that people thought they were getting a credit score they could take to the bank — when in reality they were just getting an educational ballpark. In some cases, there were significant differences between these so-called "PLUS Scores" and the actual scores themselves.
"Experian deceived consumers over how the credit scores it marketed and sold were used by lenders," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, in a statement. "Consumers deserve and should expect honest and accurate information about their credit scores, which are central to their financial lives."
Additionally, Experian was accused of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which entitles everyone to one free credit report every 12 months, by running advertisements through the Annual Credit Report website.
"While we do not believe our practices violated the law and did not admit to any of the allegations," a spokesman for the company said in a statement emailed to Mic, "Experian has accepted the consent order." The spokesman said to expect "limited changes" to bring Experian's marketing in full compliance with the ruling.
All of the $3 million will go into the CFPB's Civil Penalty Fund, which the bureau uses to compensate victims and fund financial literacy and consumer protection initiatives.
So how do you get real credit information for free?
If you're accessing your free annual credit reports through the official site, AnnualCreditReport.com, there's no reason why you should be charged any money at all. You shouldn't be shown ads for costly plans, either. Be wary of "free credit reports" from other sources, since these often come with strings attached, such as a recurring plan.
As for credit scores? Your best bet for getting your free true FICO or VantageScore credit score is through a bank, credit card company or credit union, several of which provide scores even to non-customers.
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