The site, AnnualCreditReport.com, offers consumers free copies of their own credit reports. It was by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three major credit reporting agencies in the United States, in accordance with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. The federal law aims to quell growing concerns over privacy and disclosure of sensitive financial data.
However, the online service has quickly fallen prey to imposter sites, which are designed to lure traffic from a legitimate Web site by adopting a similar domain name. Imposters targeting the AnnualCreditReport.com site now number 112, according World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit based in San Diego that's studying the problem. Another 120 registered domains that aren't currently active employ the words annual credit report in some combination or are close misspellings of the official site, the group said.
Many of the imposter sites serve as "ad farms," referring visitors to credit bureaus that charge for the reports, World Privacy Forum said. The imposters then collect referral, or "pay per click" advertising, fees from for-pay bureaus.
The privacy advocate sounded an alarm bell on Thursday in a report that said the imposter sites "have been aggressively attempting to deceive and misdirect consumers."
People can be reeled into imposter sites by either typing the wrong domain name of the site they mean to visit or by using a search engine to find the site and clicking on the wrong search result.
World Privacy Forum is urging the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on credit bureaus that advertise on imposter sites.
"The FTC should require credit bureaus and their subsidiaries to cease and desist from all search engine and other online advertising campaigns--including affiliate marketing programs--that use the words annual + credit + report in any combination if these search terms take consumers to a for-pay commercial site or any site other than the official annualcreditreport.com site," the group said in its report. "This is a challenging area, but one that needs to be tackled."
The FTC did not immediately return calls for comment.