Privacy-sensitive US citizens aiming to get their government-mandated annual free credit reports have to be careful not to endanger their sensitive data instead, stated a report released last Thursday.
More than 200 domains with similar spellings to the official AnnualCreditReport.com site have been registered by private companies to take advantage of consumers' typos. At least 112 of the domains direct wayward consumers to sites that take advantage of a victim's mistake, including sites that collect the visitor's social-security number (SSN) for marketing purposes, said Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, the privacy advocacy group that published the report.
"When you have 220 million people who are ready to put in an SSN, but a typo sends them to the wrong domain, then you have a problem," Dixon said. "I don't know how a consumer could wind their way through this labyrinth and see all the pitfalls."
The report outlines one downside of the government's response to identity theft, as announcements of new data leaks continue to plague the financial and healthcare industries and universities.
In June, MasterCard International warned that a security slip-up at third-party credit-card processor CardSystems Solutions endangered up to 40 million credit-card accounts. Earlier this month, the University of Southern California shut down its online system for accepting applications after a flaw was found to endanger the personal information of as many as 280,000 prospective students.
The Annual Credit Report website was mandated by Congress with the passage in December 2003 of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act, a mix of consumer and credit-industry protections. Among the pro-consumer parts of the legislation is a mandate that the three major credit agencies allow Americans to receive a free credit report every year. Consumers must be allowed to order the reports through the mail, by phone or over the internet. The three credit agencies established the AnnualCreditReport.com site to service internet requests. The site is managed by a joint effort, known as the Central Source, between those credit agencies and the Federal Trade Commission.
The site has rolled out services to consumers based on the geographic region of the United States in which they reside. People living on the West Coast were able to access their credit information on 1 December, 2004. Both the Midwest and Southeast regions of the country now have access, with Northeast residents gaining access by 1 September.
However, a steady stream complaints from consumers, whose typos or use of similar names have landed them on link farms and impostor sites, also began with the activation of the services, said Dixon.
"People started calling us, complaining about various domains," she said. "There is a whole range of computing skill out there among consumers - educating 200 million people is hard. I think there is a lot more work to do."
The number of sites have more than doubled to 112, since the WPF published its first report, based on consumer complaints, in February.
In one case, the domain "wwwannualcreditreport.com" led to a site that requested visitors' social-security numbers and then shared that information with a number of other companies, according to the report. After a complaint to the Central Source in early June, the site was taken down.
Another 68 domains are owned by Domain Sponsor, a subsidiary of Oversee.net, and lead to websites hosting links of other sites offering credit reports. Oversee.net did not return requests for comment.
Legitimate companies, or their affiliates, are also using visitors' typos to redirect consumers to their websites, according to the report. For example, "annualcreditmonitoringreport.com" leads people to FreeCreditReport.com, a site owned by TrueCredit, a subsidiary of the TransUnion credit bureau.
TransUnion did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Another four websites, with names such as "creditreportannually.com" and "annualonlinecreditreport.com," lead consumers to credit-checking company, Intelius. The company offers background checks and people searches for a fee.
While the company is under agreement with an affiliate to not sell the sites, chairman and CEO Naveen Jain said the company is now considering asking visitors if they intended to go to the AnnualCreditReport.com site.
"I don't have a problem with making sure that people want to be at our site and sending them to the annual credit report site if that's where they want to go," he said.
While many of the sites using the controversial tactic may not be where a consumer intends to visit, in many cases, the only harm is confusion. Only in a few cases do websites ask a trusting visitor for sensitive information, WPF's Dixon said.
"A lot of people who contacted us spent $35 on a credit report and that was their only harm," she said.
In the end, Dixon believes that navigating the online world may be too difficult for the average consumer and recommends that any non-technical users contact the credit bureaus by phone or mail.