December 7, 2004
Financial Practices Division
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20580
Re: Free Annual Credit Report Site is Blocking Web Links
Dear Mr. Winston:
We write to urge you to take immediate action to fix an anti-consumer, baseless practice implemented by the credit reporting agencies. Congress required the national credit reporting agencies to operate a free, central source for obtaining credit reports. They have done so, but in creating the site, http://www.annualcreditreport.com/, the credit reporting agencies have blocked web links from reputable consumer sites such as Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (http://privacyrights.org/) and Consumers Union (http://consumer.org), and from mainstream news web sites. If one clicks on a link from a consumer or news site to the Congressionally mandated free credit source, the following error message appears:For security purposes, www.AnnualCreditReport.com can be accessed by typing the web address "www.annualcreditreport.com", or from links from the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov), Equifax (www.equifax.com), Experian (www.experian.com) and TransUnion (www.transunion.com) websites.
AnnualCreditReport.com is the only web source authorized by all three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies from which free annual credit file disclosures can be requested.
In the interests of prompt action, we have written briefly below why this practice violates the Commission's regulations, why it is an anti-consumer practice that is not justified by security concerns, and why it makes it harder for individuals to find the free report site. We urge you to direct the credit reporting agencies to unblock these web links immediately.
The credit reporting agencies are violating the FTC Free Annual File Disclosure Regulations. 16 CFR § 610.2 (g) specifies that any communications provided through the free credit report site "shall not interfere with, detract from, or otherwise undermine the purpose of the centralized source…." The purpose of the source "is to enable consumer to make a single request to obtain annual file disclosures…" By blocking links to the site, the credit reporting agencies are frustrating access to free reports, and undermining the purpose of the source. They simply are making it more difficult for individuals to get their reports.
There is no security justification for blocking links. Links from consumer groups and news sites reduce the risk of phishing. In fact, by blocking the links and requiring consumers to type in the URL, the credit reporting agencies are creating new security risks. In typing in "www.annualcreditreport.com," an individual may misspell the URL, and thereby be directed to a fraudulent website with a similar URL. The credit reporting agencies' design of the site will thus lead to phishing. Furthermore, the central source is subject to the same security risks that any public website experiences. If there is a justification to block links to the free site, why are the credit reporting agencies not blocking links to their for-profit sites?
Blocking links obscures the free source from search engines such as Google. Many search engines treat links as an indicator of relevance. The more links to a website present, the easier it is to find on a search engine. Therefore, if the credit reporting agencies block the links, they reduce the likelihood that individuals will find the free source. Indeed, a Google search for "free credit report" leads to an array of free-to-pay conversion sites that advertise free credit reports, but really deliver expensive, unnecessary credit monitoring, such as Experian's Consumerinfo.com.
The credit reporting agencies employ language to prevent hits from search engines such as Google. Note that the language in the error message does not use the term "free credit report." Instead, it uses the phrase "free annual credit file disclosures," a search string that consumers are not likely to use when trying to find the free site. Again, this will lower the chances that the free site appears in search engine results. This is yet another subtle but effective way of preventing individuals from finding the free site.
The credit reporting agencies have left out key HTML tags on www.annualcreditreport.com that would help consumers locate the site with a search engine. The free site lacks the HTML "meta" tags that are normally included to describe a website's content. These tags assist search engines in indexing the Internet; leaving them out is a subtle way of making it harder for individuals to locate www.annualcreditreport.com. For instance, Experian.com's website embeds the following keywords with the meta tag: "credit report, check, credit reports, experian, credit score, credit bureau, reporting, agency, national score index, scorecard, credit manager, 3-in-1." Equifax and Trans Union embed similar keywords. However, the www.annualcreditreport.com site lacks a meta tag for keywords. As a result, an Internet search is more likely to return the fee-based credit report sites.
The free site is not Section 508 compliant, making it unusable by people with disabilities or people using text-only browsers. While a full Section 508 analysis is beyond the scope of this letter, the most basic requirements for access to the site for people with disabilities are absent. For instance, the images used on the site are missing "alternative text" tags. These tags label images, making it clear to the user what images are relevant and what they mean. Not including alternative text tags makes it more difficult (or even impossible) for people with disabilities to use the site. It also makes it more difficult for search engines to index the page accurately. Including key terms, such as "free credit report," in an image without an alternative text tag makes the context readable to an average user, but unreadable to a search engine.
Whether intentional or not, every subtle and not so subtle web design tactic has been employed to make www.annualcreditreport.com difficult to find and use. It appears this is unlikely to have occurred by accident, because many of the tactics represent bad web design, mistakes that only beginner HTML authors would make.
Again, we urge you to take immediate action on this matter. In passing the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act of 2003, Congress intended that individuals have free, convenient access to their credit files. The credit reporting agencies are frustrating Congress' intent, and it is incumbent on the Commission to immediately address this problem.
Chris Jay Hoofnagle
Electronic Privacy Information Center
Special Projects Staff Attorney
Consumer Program Director
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Consumer Federation of America
EPIC Privacy Page | EPIC Home Page
Last Updated: December 7, 2004
Page URL: http://www.epic.org/privacy/fcra/freereportltr.html