AUSTIN (KXAN) - It's a good idea to check your credit report at least once a year. It's an important tool to protect yourself from bank mistakes and identity thieves.
By law, people are entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies. But as Terry Olness found, some offers for "free" credit reports can come with a cost.
Last summer, Olness lost her father. After his funeral, the Georgetown woman had the task of going through his papers, preparing to probate her father's will.
One item caught her eye: a credit card charge from the website FreeCreditReport.com . Olness said her father signed up for their service.
Despite the name, the service is not free. That's surprising to some people.
When Olness tried to cancel, she said she got another surprise.
"They would not cancel the membership without first speaking with the account holder," Olness said, describing her phone call to the company. "I explained to them again that he had passed away, and I was told, 'I'm sorry, but there was nothing we could do about it.'"
Olness went to her father's brokerage firm for help. She said they got the same response.
"So, I started a letter-writing campaign," Olness said.
She filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, attorneys general of Texas and California, as well as the California Department of Justice. FreeCreditReport.com is based in California.
Olness also filed with the Better Business Bureau . She found that the BBB received more than 11,000 complaints in the past three years against the company.
Many consumers are surprised by charges from companies offering free credit reports.
"Those are freebies where you can get a credit report for free, if you sign up for something else. It is important to understand what those differences are," said Erin Dufner, Austin Better Business Bureau.
One difference is that you could keep getting billed for services like credit monitoring.
Experian Consumer Direct , which runs FreeCreditReport.com, sent a response to the inquiry filed on behalf of Olness by the California Attorney General's office.
In a letter, the company called her experience unfortunate, and unusual. It read, in part, "...while servicing several hundred thousand customers, experiences like this are the exception and not the rule."
The company also vowed to address the complaint with the customer service representative who initially spoke to Olness.
The letter also said that the company could not locate her father's membership in their customer database.
"In order for us to cancel a deceased customer membership, we ask for a copy of the death certificate," read the letter. "Please send the information so that we may further research the complaint."
Because her dad paid with a credit card, Olness said she did get most of the charges overturned. But it took a lot of effort, all while she coped with her father's death.
Olness said, "It was kind of at a time when you're grieving the loss of a parent, and then having to deal with this on top of that."
But she has advice for others in similar situations, "Be diligent and don't give up. Follow through, file the complaints."
The BBB also has suggestions for consumers seeking credit reports:
First, watch out for offers of credit report monitoring trial periods -- customers commonly complain that they signed up for a free trial, but ended up getting charged.
Beware of pop-up ads and spam offers for credit cards - they could be phishing scams from identity thieves.
And remember that AnnualCreditReport.com is the site authorized by the Federal Trade Commission as a source for truly free annual credit reports.
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