It’s easy to check your creditworthiness online but the contract you agree to can be tricky to get out of
Credit reference agencies control many aspects of our lives, including whether or not we will be approved for a mortgage, but one of the biggest firms has been accused of applying “underhand” methods to retain customers.
Equifax makes it easy to sign up for a “free trial”, but the process of unsubscribing can be confusing. This and the fees charged by all the main agencies have prompted calls for a government review of the sector.
Breaking up is hard to do
As Money readers will remember, I was shocked last month to discover a mistake had been made on my credit history by O2, which had failed to close my mobile phone account properly earlier this year.
After being rejected for a credit card as a result, I was advised by the provider — Virgin Money — to check my credit score urgently, so I registered online with Equifax. I chose to take out its 30-day free trial, rather than paying £2 for a one-off report.
When you sign up, the company takes your card details and makes clear £14.95 will be debited each month after the end of the 30 days, unless you unsubscribe. This seemed straightforward and I made a note to cancel a month later.
When the time came, I went online to do just that — but was baffled by how unclear the process was, seeing no signposts or information on the site about how to leave.
Frustratingly, I wasted the best part of an hour trying to find out how to quit. The only information I found about leaving was among dozens of other queries in the FAQ section. It gave a number to call and made no mention of the free trial.
Nor did Equifax send a reminder email that the end of the free trial was approaching, despite frequently emailing me about my report.
In the end, I called the general customer service line to close my account. When I asked why it wasn’t possible to do so online, or even to find information on doing so, I was simply told that the details of the charges were in the terms and conditions when I signed up.
Which is true — but I felt the lack of information and reminders made it easier for people to forget to cancel and find themselves paying the monthly charge as a result.
James Daley of the consumer group Fairer Finance said: “Equifax’s tactics to make it hard to quit are particularly frustrating and underhand. Sadly, this has become all too common a practice in the service industry these days. It is always easy to sign up but almost impossible to unsubscribe without having to be subjected to the hard sell, or having to put your cancellation in writing.
“I can’t see any reason why the credit reference agencies should be charging consumers to get their hands on their own data. All the basic information on our credit files should be presented in an easy-to-understand format, free of charge.
“A government review of this sector is long overdue, and I would like to see the agencies being forced to give customers their data for free.”
Experian, another big credit reference agency, does allow customers to quit its free trial online through its “Your Membership” section.
The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) said complaints about fees were among the main issues concerning credit reports, along with mistakes made on credit files.
In 2015-16, the FOS received 351 complaints about credit reference agencies, an 86% increase on the previous year.
The Advertising Standards Authority has taken action against a number of companies for misleading consumers on the charges they face when a “free” trial comes to an end. However, it said it did not currently regulate the mechanism companies use for “unsubscribing” from a free trial.
Equifax said: “We make clear to customers at the start of the free trial that they have access to their credit report for 30 days free of charge. The order confirmation that the customer receives clearly states when the free subscription ends and when the monthly charge will be applied as well as explaining how the customer can cancel their subscription. Equifax does not currently offer online cancellation.”
Credit reports are becoming increasingly important in our lives as they include more and more information from our bills, ranging from those for mobile phones to gas and electricity. A blemish on any of those could damage your chances of getting a mortgage or credit card.
Alex Neill, director of policy and campaigns at the consumer advice service Which?, said: “With millions of people reliant on credit to pay for essentials, and the new mortgage lending rules meaning tighter financial checks, it is more important than ever that people can view their credit report and ensure the information held about them is accurate.”
Bear in mind that, once you have taken advantage of a free trial, the onus is on you to remember to cancel it — otherwise you could be paying for years on end. How to do so, and the potential costs of forgetting to quit, are sometimes unclear.
Last year Money highlighted how some Amazon Prime customers who had signed up for a free trial had not realised they would be charged £79 a year when the trial ended.
The internet is full of free-trial offers, so reading the small print and taking whatever time is needed to work out how to quit will save you money in the long run.
Matt Sanders, head of money at the comparison site gocompare.com, said: “If a customer can sign up to a subscription service online, they should be able to cancel online through a clearly signposted and straightforward process.”