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 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: 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 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; 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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really! Even Shaq wouldn’t do that one, and who imagine that he’d pass up a “free score?”

Posted by bdbd | Report as abusive

“Free with enrollment in TripleAdvantage.”

Maybe this kind of garbage is something that may be covered by the new consumer finance commission. This is a financial product, and basically the advertisment is a lie. (like many ads)

Posted by Jonathan | Report as abusive

Ah, Ben Stein. I remember fuming at his column in August 2007 that argued everyone was just overreacting to the subprime mortgage crisis: ss/yourmoney/12every.html

Every single point in that piece, of course, turned out to be wrong, but the best part is the kicker:

> This economy is extremely strong. Profits are superb. The world economy is exploding with growth. To be sure, terrible problems lurk in the future: a slow-motion dollar crisis, huge Medicare deficits and energy shortages. But for now, the sell-off seems extreme, not to say nutty.

> Some smart, brave people will make a fortune buying in these days, and then we’ll all wonder what the scare was about.

Posted by Zach Seward | Report as abusive

Give the guy a break. He probably followed his own bulltard advice and lost everything. Doling out more horrific financial advice is the most obvious way to make it back.

Squirrel does a good job, though. Hits its cues with those banners every time.

Posted by otto | Report as abusive

What do you mean “sunk”? How is this lower than the batch of dangerous lies in his movie Expelled?

Posted by Neklos | Report as abusive

I saw Stein on a banner ad all day yesterday. I was surprised he would endorse one of these ripoff outfits (usually owned by one of the ratings agencies themselves, for double the badness.)

This sort of ripoff is what state Secretary of State’s or AGs should be pursuing.

Posted by Stav | Report as abusive

Well, as he wrote in one of his columns, he does have an unemployed adult son and daughter-in-law to support, so maybe he needs the money.

Posted by Mnemosyne | Report as abusive

I think it isn’t as dishonest as you make out; I took a look at it and it looks like, you can get the score for free, you get a 7 day free trial and if you do not cancel within 7 days you have to pay the (exorbitant) fee of $30 per month. It’s definitely set up as a trap for the unwary, but it isn’t a flat-out lie.

I like creditkarma, they do give you a free score (but no report) and now they give you a credit report card too, with some useful information like what your total debt is, utilization percentage, inquiries from the credit bureau the pull from, delinquencies and maybe other stuff as well, I forget. is actually not the only place to get reports. What you can do is, go to the bureau website and say you want to do a dispute. At least two of them have given me reports to so I could point out the items in dispute, without asking me to prove that I had been denied credit or what I was disputing.

Posted by Mike Toreno | Report as abusive

If Ben Stein isn’t enough piece of work check out this bit of insanity from the NYTs. n/16thu3.html


Congress should be dealing with the national embarrassment that individuals barred from airlines on the terrorist watch list are free to shop for firearms.

If that isn’t a big old cup of WTF I don’t know what is.

Posted by Gibbon1 | Report as abusive

Tangentially, could this mean the end of those stupid singer/songwriter ads? Because those things are like punishment for having ears, and the one about marrying a girl with bad credit makes me want to never love again.

Posted by Sara | Report as abusive

Ben Stein lost it when he endorsed “intelligent design” in his movie. He makes the disingenuous argument that “academic elites” ( i.e. knowledgable scientists) who don’t teach creationism ( as believed by one particular sect of one particular religion) alongside evolution science are stifling academic freedom.

He also shills for Raymond J Lucia, a financial planner.

Ben Stein is your ordinary financial news shill. He is also a perverted financial news shill.

Ben Stein: Hot To Fox Trot

Gives a whole new meaning to Free “SCORE”. is actually not the only place to get reports.”

Legally, and for consumers not disputing an item, yes it is.

“What you can do is, go to the bureau website and say you want to do a dispute. At least two of them have given me reports to [sic] so I could point out the items in dispute, without asking me to prove that I had been denied credit or what I was disputing.”

So you admit to breaking the law and lying in order to get a free report, even though you can get one for free at … ?

Um, okay.

As someone who has ghostwritten more than 40 articles and a book on personal finance, I can assure you that the annual report site is the best way to get your free report, and that a credit score is pretty much useless since all three bureaus use slightly different scoring models. (There’s also the fact that, right now, Experian won’t even give you a score — they’re in a lawsuit with Fair Issac over a new scoring system they tried to implement.)

IIRC, FreeCreditReport.stupid is ran by TransUnion and they’re making a fortune off those who don’t know any better.

Oh, and the “free” 7-day trial is not, in fact, free, and is damn near impossible to have stopped — my sister got rooked and it took a letter from a lawyer to get them to refund the money they stole from her.

Posted by Mark D | Report as abusive

“Give the guy a break. He probably followed his own bulltard advice and lost everything.”

Now I have this mental image of Ben Stein as the guy playing guitar at a fast-food restaurant in one of those freecreditscam– er, commercials.

Posted by Marcus | Report as abusive

Oh, for heaven’s sake. I do not lie. As a matter of fact, whenever you make a payment on a card, the report is in error because the balance is wrong, the creditor doesn’t send new information until the closing date, so you can dispute it to have it reflect the correct balance. This is particularly relevant when you have paid off a card with a big balance and don’t want to wait until the closing date for it to show up on the card.

annualcreditreport, while I like it a great deal, doesn’t work when you have already used up your free report for a bureau for that year and want another report from the same bureau.

As for them not canceling when they’re supposed to, I don’t know about the triple advantage thing Stein is hawking, but I have done freecreditreport a couple times and had no problem canceling.

annualcreditreport is less of a pain, though, and that, combined with creditkarma, should satisfy most people’s needs. The good thing about creditkarma is you can do it every day if you want.

Posted by Mike Toreno | Report as abusive

tip of the iceberg
Here’s more of Stein’s wretched history advertisement-for-intelligent-design

Posted by jesse kornbluth | Report as abusive

What? The creator of the anti-evolution propaganda film “Exposed” is willing to lie for money? Whoda thunkit?

Posted by giantslor | Report as abusive

Stein has been full of crap for years now. When he wrote a column saying social security was “going broke” (it is solvent until 2036), I e-mailed him and called him out on it. Of course, he never responded. Liar.

Well, I saw your “this is my last Stein post, anyone want to take up the Ben Stein Watch banner?” and did not take you up on it (despite my own blog getting lots of hits when I dished Stein), because I was as sick of the duffer as you were. But, yowser! Has anyone noticed how slurred and labored his voice has become? It sounds terrible – I’ve wondered about the possibility of a stroke for some time.

What a sad spiral for a man who I, frankly, see as a narcissist, first portraying himself as a playboy and hinting at an open marriage in (one of) his autobiograph(ies), hanging around pretty young things and reportedly chasing them on his game show, then doing a U-turn into buffoonish creationism and self-righteous moralizing, and finally this desperate dance for coins. The predictable fate of the hopelessly mediocre.

“the score itself is not very useful to consumers”
You should tell this to the banks when you are trying to get a mortgage

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

your bark is bigger than your bite and your research on the product is pretty thin, felix. what kind of blogger are you?

as an actual live customer, who pays for the product monthly and has found value, you clearly are on a witch hunt for ben stein. what did any of these people do to?

it’s bad enough there was a falling out over his decision to rep the product, but your misrepresentation of the offer requires a bit more due diligence.

i was able to test drive the product and actually, when i finally saw my reports and scores and incorrect data, i was able to fix it, easily. have you tried calling the credit bureaus for help, lately? didn’t think so.

you claim the score is of no value – but they gave me the scores, which the free annual site you pimped didn’t. they also monitored my credit at all the big bureaus, which i don’t think free annual does either. if the scores have no value, why do the likes of myFICO and the credit bureaus seemed to want to charge me extra for them?

there are tons of products out there – and if you’re going to say it’s a crackpot, why not hit the bureaus on this too? these are THEIR products. they offer them too through their own sites like –,, – and through every bank known to man.

so do me a favor, stop kicking poor ben when he’s down. if it weren’t for him paving the way for celebrity-esque writers (read: bloggers, to you, youngin’), you wouldn’t have a job.

buck up, dude and learn to do your research better. sensationalism only makes you look weak & uneducated.

Posted by nikkik | Report as abusive

Ben Stein graduated from my high school in the early 60′s (he reportedly was a jerk in high school also) and now has agreed to be the MC of a big reunion celebrating the 75th anniversary of the school.
I have written to the organizers and told them that he is a completely inappropriate person, but they are so enamored of his Hollywood status that they simply don’t understand why anyone would want him off the ticket.
Many of us are refusing to go to the reunion — we certainly don’t want to pay to sit in an audience while Stein holds forth.

Posted by Martha Teitelbaum | Report as abusive

Unbelievable! With all the focus on conflicts of interest in government I would have missed this story completely. Fortunately, the public can rely upon the New York Times and initiatives such as this one to guard against any and all potential things fishy.

Posted by el camino | Report as abusive

Want to find something on Ben Stein? He claims to have been valedictorian of his class at Yale Law School. Well, if you search the web, you will not find anyone else who made the same claim. Now with all those high powered people at YLS, you would think that one of them would be touting his/her valedictorian credentials. You’d think that there would be a list somewhere of YLS valedictorians.

My guess is that Ben Stein made it up.

Posted by Wally Baloo | Report as abusive

Felix is a piss ant little boychild…..he might as well save himself some time and just write, Nah nah nah nah…..nah nah. Cuz thats all I am hearing!

I whole heartily agree with wenzy, Felix is a piss ant and obviously very intimidated by Ben. Is it any surprise they canned Ben, a Conservative at the most liberal rag this side of the London Guardian. Ben will move on to greater things as the NYT dies a well deserved death. Besides I’ll bet Felix doesn’t like Ferris Bueller either.

Posted by roger strand | Report as abusive

wow, so did you have a crush on Stein in high school and he turned you down? I’ve never seen an article written with so much baffling hostility about such a harmless person. I’d love to see the writer go on “Win Ben Steins Money” and see how far they could go up against Stein himself.

Secondly, most of the comments I’ve seen about Expelled lead me to believe that almost no one here has actually seen the film. Nowhere does the film argue that Creationism should be taught in schools. Intelligent Design doesn’t even argue that. The film’s argument is that any teacher or scientist that considers ID shouldn’t be fired. Science should be open to considering anything… thats how we learn. Nearly every scientific discovery in history seemed ridiculous to someone at one point or another.

Secondly, someone made it sound like ID and Creationism are one and the same. They are not. People of all religions believe in ID. There are even athiests that believe in ID. ID is simply the idea that maybe there was a “designer” behind the beginning of life.

Posted by Ted | Report as abusive

The article is unfortunately true. made $60 in authorized charges against my credit card. Avoid them at all costs.

What they are doing ought to be illegal but unfortunately is not. So, too, is Ben Stein’s activity in endorsing them.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

Instead of insulting Felix Salmon, readers should be grateful for this informative article. I used to work in the field of financial education and literacy (something Americans’ need a lot more of, in general) and remember when Ben Stein was the key note speaker at a conference on the topic in Washington, D.C. The fact that a man whose entire career and reputation as an economics journalist has now sold himself as a pitch man for a shady, unethical company whose main purpose is to rip off the unsuspecting public is what you would call a “shanda” in Yiddish and Ben Stein should be ashamed of himself. Kudos to Salmon for exposing that Stein is a hypocrite and a fraud and betrayed all that he had purportedly stood for just for an easy buck.

Posted by Maorka | Report as abusive

I’m not really interested in defending Ben Stein, but I do feel he was just ignorant of the scam credit score sites that we are flooded with now and just blindly accepted another paying gig. They are all after one thing – your credit card number. Recurring payments is the name of the game these days. And they get plenty of suckers every time they air their commercials. I never buy anything on credit but I would think that an auto dealership, for example, wouldn’t care about a credit “score” number but would look at the overall report. The “score” thing is something the 3 main credit reporting agencies came up with to screw people out of money and I feel they are the main culprits in all of this. And the widespread ignorance of the public makes it easy for them to prey on them.

Posted by edgein | Report as abusive