A while back, I was appalled to learn that my pal Halcyon had taken a gig assisting with promo for Experian’s FreeCreditReport.com. Halcyon has always struck me as someone, who not only has a beautiful soul, but someone who usually strives to better the world around him, rather than polluting it. He and I made plans to do an interview on the topic of Experian and FreeCreditReport.com before it fully launched, but the interview never came to pass. As we were having the conversation about what he was doing with Experian and what I found disturbing about that on Twitter, there was only so much detail we could each go into in 140 characters or less.
From Halcyon’s comments on my NWA article, I think he may have thought that my objection to FreeCreditReport.com was solely that Experian as a larger company has done some sucky things. Most of you probably know that Experian is a credit reporting bureau. I found FreeCreditReport.com’s youth market targeted commercials really offensive. I felt that their commercials came across like Experian’s marketing department was sitting around laughing about how their version of a permanent record can totally ruin people’s lives. The commercials strongly implied that maybe hipster loser types should be demanding credit reports from their dates and housemates, just in case any of them had bad credit which might be an inconvenience down the road, whether the black marks on their credit were accurate or identity theft or whatever. There even seemed to be an undertone of implication that, if your friends and lovers didn’t feel like handing over their credit reports to drinking buddies, it might be smart to secretly enter info on people you know into FreeCreditReport.com. (I believe this would be a felony, as it should be.) Experian seemed to be congratulating themselves on connecting with the youth market via calling them both hip and losers. The value proposition put forth in their commercials is that you should use a service Experian provides so you can see how much false data Experian is keeping on file which might ruin your life. Every American is legally entitled to at least one free credit report a year, so I thought it was borderline extortionist for Experian to try to pry extra data from consumers, via FreeCreditReport.com, to give them the same free credit report information they would be legally entitled to without having to provide quite so much personal information.
What most marketing businesspeople and social scientists know, but the average person may not, is that Experian is not just a credit bureau, but a multi-faceted data mining corporation. For example, a number of years ago, Experian launched another site aimed at gathering data on people in various cool subcultures. It was called Thirsty.com and Sean Suhl, who is now head of much-derided punk porn site SuicideGirls, was then in charge of content for Thirsty.com. I had never heard of Sean Suhl at the time, but Forrest Black and I got really bummed out about updating BlueBlood.net for a while because someone over at Thirsty.com kept copy/pasting articles we wrote without attribution. At first, we thought maybe they were just getting the same press releases we were, although the coincidences seemed extreme. Then we posted an article I wrote about Godhead when they were sign by Marilyn Manson where we included a line about how we, knowing them personally, wished them well. Thirsty.com immediately followed with an article about Godhead which included a line about wishing them well, which is not the most common turn of phrase to find in rock journalism.
The funniest Thirsty.com copy/pasting from BlueBlood.net moment was when Forrest Black wrote an article about Roman Dirge’s Lenore. Forrest accidentally linked SpookLand.com instead of SpookyLand.com. He later corrected the link on BlueBlood.net, but it ran as the wrong link in the nearly identical article on Thirsty.com. As I recall, SpookLand.com had a lot more spy stuff than cute gothic comic book girl stuff. At any rate, Experian’s Thirsty.com is what mined the consumer data Hot Topic used to shut down all the independent punk rock stores which were the cornerstone cultural centers of so many local scenes. It is reasonable to assume that, as Sean Suhl held a management position at Thirsty.com, he, like Hot Topic, was also able to utilize Experian’s data mining to found SuicideGirls, with all the havoc that project has wrought on what was once a cool, vibrant, artistic, genuinely feminist and progressive community.
So it would be reasonable to dislike Experian for acknowledging that much of their negative data is bad and using that as a reason people should give them more data. It would be reasonable to dislike Experian for having mined data which made being a gothic, punk, coffeehouse, nightclub etc. sort of person a heck of a lot less fun and a lot more sanitized and homogenized. It would be reasonable to dislike Experian because the commercials for FreeCreditReport.com are so disrespectful of their target market and the jingle is so annoying. However, there is one more reason to dislike them: FreeCreditReport.com apparently is not free.
Boing-Boing‘s Mark Frauenfelder wrote an article for PC.com called When is a free credit report not a free credit report?. Some highlights of what Mark Frauenfelder wrote include:
I noticed a $14.95 charge from a company called CIC*Triple Advantage. I didn’t recall buying anything from a company with that name, so I entered “CIC*Triple Advantage” into Google. The search results made my eyes bug out of my head. This was the name of the billing entity for freecreditreport.com. The thousands of search results were full of words like “deceptive practices,” “scam,” “ripoff,” “unauthorized billing!” and “beware!” In fact, all the top results were either from people complaining that they’d been conned into signing up for a $14.95 monthly credit monitoring service without their permission, or they were about how to cancel the service.
In the unlikely event you are not familiar with Mark Frauenfelder, he is one of the few people to come out of the zine explosion really successfully and more importantly regarding FreeCreditReport.com, he is one of the most highly respected web tech journalists on the planet. Yet he was taken in by FreeCreditReport.com’s offer and ended up getting unexpected charges on his credit card from them. So it turns out the free credit reports those willing to give up extra data get from FreeCreditReport.com are not always free.