BOSTON – My summer reading has included some interesting letters, coming from readers with interesting questions. Here are a few that you, too, might find worth a look-see.
From Tori, in Chicago: I am confused about my credit report. I thought the law lets me get one for free, but when I heard an ad and called the number, I found out that I could only get my report free if I paid for some other services. Is this legal?
Answer: It's legal, but it's not necessarily "right" from several different standpoints.
The Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act of 2003 made it so that consumers are entitled to a free copy of their credit report, once per year, from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus. Those three agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- even set up a Web site that consumers must go to for their freebie; the site is http://www.annualcreditreport.com.
There are plenty of other sites with similar names promising free credit reports, but invariably they package the "free" side with some other goods and services, selling you your credit score -- which the agencies are not required to give you for free -- bundling the three reports together into one, selling credit-monitoring services and more.
Consumer Reports WebWatch recently reviewed 24 sites offering "free" credit reports and found that the proliferation of these other sites -- which invariably charge a fee for bundling several services together -- was creating confusion.
Worse yet, the study found that nine of the 24 reviewed sites were owned or closely tied to TransUnion, with eight others having similarly close connections to Experian. In other words, the same guys who were required by law to provide a free report are also creating some of the confusion about the freebies.
That's disconcerting -- and it explains some of the confusion -- but it's not against the rules. It just forces consumers to be particularly careful to get to the right site.
"Just use the annualcreditreport.com site, get your free report and then decide if you actually need any of the other services," says Robert Mayer, the University of Utah professor who conducted the study. "You'll get what you need, and you won't be sold anything you don't need."
From Jessica in Washington: How often should I check my credit score? I paid to get it -- it's 620 -- and I am hoping to make I go up, but how often should I check it to make sure things are OK?
A: You should review your credit report in order to make sure that it accurately reflects your payment history, but knowing your credit score on an ongoing basis is not quite so important, unless you are pursuing a new loan or plan to be soon.
That said, how often someone tracks their score may also be a function of the number they have now. That 620 mark, for example, is just at the level of most concern; scores below 620 reflect enough problems so that it can be hard to get loans or credit cards with reasonable terms.
That means you'd like to not only hold the line or improve your score -- by paying bills on time, reducing your debts, charging less and so on -- but you want to make sure it hasn't fallen if and when you next fill out a loan application.
Because there is no instant fix to raise your credit score, checking only after six months of work to improve it is reasonable, according to most experts. And even in those times when you are not in need of reviewing your score, experts suggest that you still take the annual look at your credit report as a kind of credit check-up.
From Walter in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: Now that the Dow has hit 14,000, isn't it due for a big pullback? It can't hold this level, can it?
A: There may be a pullback in the stock market, but it won't really be caused by the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching a record level. Technical analysts tend to chart market movements, looking for levels that the market seemingly is reluctant to break through, but they also know that breakthrough often is inevitable (in fact, it often signals the trend change they are looking for, triggering a buy or sell decision).
Market watchers are nervous about the weakening dollar, the price of oil, continuing inflationary pressures on the economy, increased terrorism threats and more, but no one believes the Dow crossing 14,000 will be the trigger to make any of those bad events happen.
In fact, if the Dow keeps right on going to 15,000, that number won't be the tipping point. The market indexes reflect underlying activity and overriding sentiment, but the numbers by themselves are just mile markers.