Ben Stein, predatory bait-and-switch merchant

By Felix Salmon
July 16, 2009

How far has Ben Stein sunk? Far enough that I feel compelled to resuscitate the Ben Stein Watch, just to share this unfunny and positively harmful TV ad which is now being aired:

“I went to freescore.com and found out my score for free”, says Ben, while an annoying squirrel holds up a sign with the word “FREE” in some horrible brush-script font.

A few points are worth noting here. First, the score itself is not very useful to consumers. What’s useful is the report — if there’s an error on the report, then the consumer can try to rectify it. Secondly, and much more importantly, if you want a free credit report, there’s only one place to go: annualcreditreport.com. That’s the place where the big three credit-rating agencies will give you a genuinely free copy of your credit report once a year, as required by federal law.

You won’t be surprised to hear that freescore.com is not free: in order to get any information out of them at all, you have to authorize them to charge you a $29.95 monthly fee. They even extract a dollar out of you up front, just to make sure that money is there.

Stein, here, has become a predatory bait-and-switch merchant, dangling a “free” credit report in front of people so that he can sock them with a massive monthly fee for, essentially, doing nothing at all. Naturally, the people who take him up on this offer will be those who can least afford it.

The level to which Stein has now sunk is more than enough reason — as if the case for the prosecution weren’t damning enough already — for the NYT to cancel Stein’s contract forthwith. It’s simply unconscionable for a newspaper of record to employ as its “Everybody’s Business” columnist someone who is surely making a vast amount of money by luring the unsuspecting into overpaying for a financial product they should under no circumstances buy.

It’ll also be interesting to see whether the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency will have the authority to regulate this kind of advertising. If it doesn’t, that’s a significant hole in its mandate.

Update: Ryan Chittum notes that the new credit card act requires advertisers to inform consumers that the only place for a free credit report is AnnualCreditReport.com; they will also be required to include a   statement that “This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal law.” When does this act come into force?

Update 2: It’s also worth quoting the NYT’s own ethics guidelines:

40. It is an inherent conflict for a journalist to perform public relations work, paid or unpaid.

44. Staff members may not engage in financial counseling (except through the articles they write). They may not manage money for others, offer investment advice, or help operate an investment company of any sort, with or without pay.

Stein isn’t a staff member. But the NYT generally holds its columnists to the same ethical standards.

Update 3: Here’s a good video, to go with Stein’s bad one.

Update 4: Freescore seems to be intimately connected with a very ugly company called Vertrue. Ugh.

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