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The Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement this week in which three credit score companies will pay consumers $22 million for billing them for credit monitoring products they never ordered. The companies drew customers to their sites by offering free credit scores, but signing up set off a $29.95 recurring monthly fee for credit monitoring, which customers didn’t know about.

In this case, more than 50 websites marketed MyCreditHealth and ScoreSense products, and the companies bought ads for free credit scores, with the most prominent ad reading “View your latest Credit Scores from All 3 Bureaus in 60 seconds for $0!” according to an FTC release on the settlement. The companies include: One Technologies LP, also doing business as ScoreSense One Technologies Inc. and MyCreditHealth; One Technologies Management LLC; and One Technologies Capital LLP.

The FTC and attorneys general in Ohio and Illinois filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Northern California saying the companies did not clearly tell consumers that getting their free credit scores through their websites automatically enrolls them in the credit monitoring programs. Once enrolled, customers could only cancel or request refunds through an 800-number, and people said it often took multiple calls to confirm the cancellation or refund. The complaint says the companies often denied refunds to customers who said they didn’t knowingly opt into the service.

The three companies were charged with violating the FTC’s Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, and they agreed to pay $22 million in consumer refunds in a settlement with the FTC and attorneys general in Illinois and Ohio.

To be clear: There are several websites and financial services companies who offer truly free credit scores and require no payment information to access the scores — Credit.com is one of them — but there are also many that require payment or a credit card. It can be confusing for consumers, so make sure you thoroughly read the terms of agreement for any credit product before giving a company your payment information.

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The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

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Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

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Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

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