“FREE CREDIT REPORT!” the faceless voice blared in tandem with the bold type on my TV screen, “For YOURS, go to freecreditreportforunow.com”
Okay, I was in. “Free” is a wonderful word, and I DID wonder what my credit looked like these days, after several years post-auto accident, countless medical bills and collection notices from the creditors my insurance carrier still had not gotten around to paying.
So the next morning, at my computer with a satisfyingly just-right cup of coffee, I remembered the commercial and easily typed in the web address.
Ah-ha. I was at the right place. Big, bold and color-beautiful type-font reminding me that, yes, this was the place to get my FREE peek at my mysterious credit report, and I would soon be on my way to making it PERFECT again.
One simple little form to fill out: name, email address, street address, a few other personal identification items like Social Security number, State ID and/or Driver’s License. And there, just above the SEND button, a little line of underlined type that read something like “Yes, I have read the Terms & Conditions etc.” with a pre-ticked little check box beside it. Of course, I clicked the SEND button without hesitation. These things are all the same, anyway. You read one set of “Terms and Conditions”, you’ve read them all, so… why waste more time?
Within moments, I was routed to a page with a little clock in the center, it’s hands making their animated way around and around. “Please Wait…” read the friendly note below it. And I did, patiently. After all, I was asking them to provide me with VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION, and it would be worth the wait!
Cool… There it was. A new page, JUST for me. I could view my credit report NOW, either online, or download it to view as a a PDF. I couldn’t wait: I selected “View Now”.
It was a long page, very detailed, and I was quite satisfied with the results. Surprised AND satisfied. My credit rating was NOT as bad as I had feared, and there were a few creditors listed therein that I KNEW were simply late-insurance-payment related, nothing to worry overmuch about. I printed my credit report, very pleased with the whole experience. I DID understand that this particular site would only allow me free access to my credit report ONCE a year, but I was okay with that. I went back and saved the file as a PDF to my hard drive, so I could look at it again later. I now had a copy in my hands of my credit report, up-to-date, and I intended to use it to straighten my credit out. I now had what I needed, and it was FREE!
It was about three weeks later that I had a small problem with my checking account. I was overdrawn, just by a few dollars, but my bank promptly zapped me with a $35 fee for their trouble. It APPEARED, at first glance, that I had simply neglected to enter a few ATM charges into my checkbook…tsk tsk. I needed to make sure I posted those every time from now on.
A month or two passed, and I was overdrawn again – THREE transactions had bounced! – this time during the Holidays. I went over my checkbook, my bank statement, several times, but there was SO much activity going on, what with it being the Christmas shopping season and all, that I wound up passing it off as another distracted boo-boo, albeit an EXPENSIVE one (just over $100 out of my pocket this time).
And next month, I had driven my checkbook balance down to its last $10, because January was “Catch Up On The Bills After Holidays Month”; I was living paycheck to paycheck trying to get caught up… BOUNCE. This time, I was out of pocket for two overdrafts, and had to BORROW from my sister to pull my account out of the red. Another overdraft, the next month. But I had undergone major surgery, and paid some bills from my hospital bed, while under heavy medication.
And so it went. The overdrafts every month. The excuses and rationalization, the putting off of sitting down and figuring out what the heck was happening.
When I applied, the following Spring, for a small loan to do some home improvement, I was denied. “Too many recent NSF (non-sufficient-funds),” they told me. I was furious with myself for not making the time to examine the problem more closely; instead I had just been throwing money at my checking account every month, trying to leave an extra $10 or $20 in there instead of my usual habit of spending it down to the last two or three bucks at the end of the month… STILL, I was bouncing. Every month.
I went to my bank and asked for a detailed statement of my account for the prior twelve months, and sat down, again with a warm and aromatic cup of coffee (only this time I wasn’t in such a happy mood), to go through my state of finance with a fine-toothed comb.
Finally, a new “ah ha!” moment.
I have several bills that are automatically debited from my account every month; the YMCA, a couple web-hosting accounts, some online gaming membership for my son. But here was one I did not recognize: $14.95 to some “NAT’L FIN ASSOC subscr 1800XXXXXXX” .
WHAT? Now THAT didn’t sound familiar. So I checked again. And double-checked…
There was a debit for this amount, every month for the past nine months, always towards the end date, and just before the overdrafts took place. This mystery debit had caused me to overdraft every single time, because I was never one to have more than $5 or $6 in my checking account at the end of the month.
So I phoned my bank, and asked them if and why THEY were debiting me every month: was this some new fee? Of course not, they told me, and suggested I phone the creditor’s number.
I tracked it down to the online company I had received my FREE credit report from, so many months ago. I found out that I had inadvertently SIGNED UP (remember that little “Terms & Conditions” link I blew right past?) for a subscription service that monitored my credit and (supposedly) emailed me an overview of my credit status every month. I had NEVER received so much as an email confirmation on this so-called service – let alone MONTHLY reports!- or I might’ve caught this horror a lot sooner.
I phoned them.
I was put on hold for forty minutes, accidentally disconnected, on hold again and then given what could only be described as a run-around.
I was told by This Department: “You need to talk to THAT department – I’ll connect you. Please wait.” and then: “Oh, you need to talk to THIS department, I’ll connect you,” said That Department. And so on. This went on for several frantic days.
I ended up putting a block on my checking account that prevented ANY amounts from being debited automatically -they had no way to block a creditor selectively- and then sent several highly-threatening emails to various staff at the company in question. I attempted to reach them by phone – by now I had their number on “speed dial” – several more times.
FINALLY, I caught up with a REAL human being on the phone who seemed to have some earnestness about him. My so-called subscription was CANCELED. I insisted I receive this in WRITING, which he promptly emailed to me. I also INSISTED on a full refund. I was told that was not possible, as I had signed up for the service, and their Terms & Conditions stated everything quite plainly (he KNEW I hadn’t read the TAC, and that the law was on their side).
I did some more investigating in the day or two that followed, went through all of my email, and then called them back, asking for the person I spoke with earlier (ALWAYS ask for your human’s FULL NAME (if possible) AND “number” – there’s ALWAYS an ID or extension number of sorts attached to the call center employees – GET IT. If you don’t, you will have to start from scratch many times over again).
I informed him that I had NEVER received a monthly report from them – nay, not one email – and that they had FAILED TO PERFORM as promised, per the service agreement.
I then insisted on a refund again – this time because I was “unsatisfied with the lack of service”. This was the hardest “acting” I’ve ever had to do.
He put me on hold for a moment.
When he returned a few minutes later, he was polite and apologetic.
And I received my FULL REFUND.
Of course, they weren’t going to reimburse me for all of the overdrafts and charges their debits had caused (almost $800 to date) – that was MY fault, owing to some sloppy seat-of-the-pants accounting on my part. Were it not for my shaving my account down to the bare minimum every month, their fee might never have surfaced and caught my attention.
I followed this experience up with a visit to the Better Business Bureau, where I filed a report and complaint. And I discovered this particular company had quite a few flags – all remarkably similar to my experience.
This was an expensive, and ironic, Life Lesson for me. Ironic because this experience left my credit in worse shape than it was before I ever hit that “send” button!
We all know to remember that nothing is truly FREE – always look for the catch.
And I now resolved to NEVER skip reading the fine print, or Terms & Conditions, again, no matter how bland or boring they might be – because therein is where one will find the “catch”.