The Florida state attorney general's office has opened an investigation into potentially misleading advertising by FreeCreditReport.com.
The Web site, owned by credit bureau Experian Group Ltd, offers consumers a chance to obtain their credit reports and credit score by signing up for a paid subscription service.
In response to a public record inquiry by MSNBC.com, the office of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist issued a statement indicating it had opened an investigation to determine whether Experian has violated Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The investigation will cover several entities owned by Experian, including Consumerinfo.com, Inc., Experian Consumer Direct; Qspace, Inc.; Iplace, Inc.; and the Web sites Consumerinfo.com; Creditexpert.com; and Creditmatters.com.
The inquiry will examine allegations of the firm's "failure to adequately disclose negative option enrollment ... deceptive advertising, misleading domain name, and failure to honor cancellations," the agency says on its Web site. The investigtation involves a potential civil -- not a criminal -- case, and the opening of the investigation does not constitute proof of wrongdoing.
Neither the attorney general's office nor Experian immediately responded to requests for comment.
In September, MSNBC.com investigated FreeCreditReport.com's advertising strategies, which include a late-night television campaign urging consumers to get their free credit report at FreeCreditReport.com. The ads don't disclose fees associated with obtaining the report, but end simply with a disclaimer saying that credit reports can only be obtained "with enrollment in Triple Advantage."
Starting in 2004, Congress mandated that the nation's three credit bureaus open a Web site where consumers could obtain their credit reports for free, once each year. That site is AnnualCreditReport.com. Concerns have been raised that consumers can easily confuse FreeCreditReport.com, Experian's for-profit site, with the government-mandated AnnualCreditReport.com.
This not the first time FreeCreditReport.com has run into trouble with regulators. In August 2005, Experian settled charges leveled by the Federal Trade Commission that it purposely "misled consumers about their association with the annual free credit report program," the FTC said.
Experian admitted no wrongdoing when settling the charges, but agreed to refund consumers and surrender about $1 million in "ill-gotten gains," according to the FTC. It also agreed to change marketing strategies.