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Consumer Reports

Debunking a credit information hoax | (KRT) The e-mail to a reader's elderly father wasn't spam. But it was of a sort you've probably gotten that may be more dangerous than most unsolicited bulk e-mail.

This kind comes from someone you know. It's well-intentioned. It might even contain a grain or two of truth. But it's fundamentally wrong.

"Your credit report goes public in July!" this one declared. "Remove your name asap."

The e-mail went on to say that, come July 1, the leading credit bureaus "will be allowed to release credit info, mailing addresses, phone numbers, etc., to ANYONE who requests it."

And it tells people what to do: Call a certain toll-free number to opt out.

The assertions in the e-mail are just plain wrong. There is no major new rule governing financial information that takes effect July 1. Personal credit information can still be released only under certain circumstances laid out in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Whoever wrote this e-mail, which has been bouncing around the Internet at least since December 2001, was probably confused by the financial-privacy law known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which set a July 1, 2001, deadline for companies to notify customers of their privacy policies and to tell them how to limit information-sharing.

The e-mail, in fact, borders on notorious. Claudia Bourne Farrell of the Federal Trade Commission says a warning about it is the only "consumer alert" to ever win the dubious honor of a permanent place on the FTC's Internet home page.

Farrell says the e-mail picked up steam last year as July approached, and it seems to be doing so again.

One reason, ironically, may be one of those aforementioned grains of truth.

Though most everything else in the e-mail is hooey, the toll-free number is real, and actually quite useful if you want to cut down on one kind of sharing of your credit information: its purchase by companies planning to make so-called prescreened offers.

Here's how that works: Key information from your credit report - not the whole thing, but enough to identify your creditworthiness - can be purchased by lenders or insurers interested in making unsolicited offers.

You've seen the result if your regular mailbox is full of credit-card offers that shout out "0 percent interest!" or "You've been preapproved!"

Want to end the onslaught, save trees, and limit the number of pieces of information entering the trash stream that testify to your name, address and ability to qualify for credit - all of which can put you at some risk of identity theft?

Call the number in that otherwise useless e-mail: 1-888-567-8688. It's the credit reporting industry's "Prescreening Opt-Out Number." Follow the instructions, and you can get rid of those offers for two years or indefinitely.

Unfortunately, you can't get out of receiving misleading e-mails so easily. But there are good sources for debunking them - and you don't have to compound the damage by forwarding them to everybody you know.

The first rule, of course, is to be skeptical. If you read it on e-mail first, but haven't seen it in the news media, ask yourself why. Sometimes the media are just slow to catch up - you may have better sources than we do - but usually you probably haven't seen it for a good reason: It isn't true.

If something seems questionable, you might want to check it out on one of the Web sites devoted to discredited e-mails, urban myths, and other hardy forms of misinformation.

One of the best is , named after a family of characters who appear in the works of William Faulkner. (Snopes lists the credit-information e-mail as one of visitors' most frequent hits.)

Two other sites that focus on these modern snippets of folklore are and

All of them are fun to visit just to marvel at what other people will believe. What rubes! What hayseeds!

But look around long enough, and you'll find something you believed, at least for a moment. I know I did, but I'm not telling.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services