Have you received an offer for a free credit score? Be careful. It could be bait from a scammer who's after your money or your identity.
Credit scores are enormously influential in our lives, dictating the rates we pay on loans and credit cards and playing a role in insurance premium prices and hiring decisions. They are separate from credit reports, which detail your credit history. It can be tempting to click on a link in an email that offers the prospect of seeing the magic number.
And, in fact, you may be among some 50 million Americans who now have easier access to free credit scores from legitimate sources. Because it's good for customer relations, many banks and credit card issuers now provide the scores for the asking, or even automatically on monthly statements.
At websites such as creditkarma.com, mint.com, creditsesame.com, quizzle.com and bankrate.com, the only cost of seeing your score is having to receive promotional emails for products such as credit cards and loans. "The hope is you keep coming back to check your free score and sign up for offers by their vendors so the website gets a revenue share," says John Ulzheimer, author of The Smart Consumer's Guide to Good Credit. But many people don't know that scores are widely available gratis, so scammers step in. Here's how to protect yourself.
Read carefully. In the most popular ruse, fraudsters recruit you by masquerading as well-known companies and banks, sending you emails that are spot-on replicas of ones from the real McCoys. They may tweak their names by a letter or two so that you're not likely to notice. The goal is to lead you to their own rogue websites. There, your "free" score comes with strings attached — usually, automatic and sometimes undisclosed enrollment in credit monitoring or identity protection services. Or you may have your identity stolen. To reduce the risk of your computer's being infected with malware, never click on links embedded in emails from parties you don't know. If you feel that you must check out a particular website service, find its address through a search engine and type it in yourself.
Don't give your credit card number. Being asked for your number to obtain a "free" score is a red flag that you'll be enrolled in a fee-based service that can cost $300 or more a year. Legitimate providers of free scores don't ask for your plastic.
Flee from "free" in names. In tracking companies that offer free credit scores, Ulzheimer came up with this counterintuitive conclusion: "Legitimate providers of free credit scores never have the word 'free' in their domain name."
Be especially wary after a data breach. Following breaches at Target and other retailers in which hackers made off with the account information of millions of customers, scammers have sent emails mentioning the breaches and urging people to get protection. The emails appear to be from legitimate score providers, but in fact spread malware or solicit sensitive personal information.
Ask your bank or credit card provider for your score. If your own financial institution won't provide it, try one of the legitimate websites.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.