There may be no free lunches, but some goods and services have no cost. And wise consumers don’t pay for anything that’s free.
Leading the list are credit reports. By law, all U.S. consumers are entitled to one free report from each of the three major reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — every year, and we recommend rotating among agencies every four months. To access these agencies for free, use AnnualCreditReport.com. Other websites may try to charge you for a report, credit monitoring or other services.
Bank accounts and credit cards don’t have to come with hefty fees. Shop around and find what fits your needs. You can do some comparison shopping at nerdwallet.com.
Seniors are bombarded with ads offering help for a fee in finding the best health care insurance. An appointment with your local area agency on aging will link you with someone you can talk with directly, and it’s free. Call 877-353-3771 for information.
Seniors also can take a class at the University of Maine for free. People 65 and older can take one class per semester without paying tuition or fees. Call 581-3143 for details.
Amazon will sell you a Consumer Action Handbook for $5.99. The author is listed as “United States General Services Administration.” Yes, it’s a free government publication, downloadable at no charge at https://publications.usa.gov/USAPubs.php?PubID=5131. For a printed copy, call 844-USA-GOV1 (844-872-4681). The call also is free.
Speaking of calls, instead of dialing 411 and paying for directory assistance, call 800-FREE-411. It works nationwide. The only catch is that you have to listen to a 20-second ad first.
Paying for free things and services doesn’t make sense. What concerns many consumers is the hidden cost structure of many things in the digital world. Still, these are costs that many consumers pay willingly.
Consider those “free” apps for your handheld computer. You might pay the price of watching whatever ads appear. Maybe you’ll decide that the basic app is so cool you’ll pay for an upgrade. The hidden costs can pile up when young users buy game enhancements from the company store. As we’ve discussed before, in-app spending by children led to action by the Federal Trade Commission requiring informed consent before consumers can be charged.
The explosion in e-commerce has the administrators of retail websites thirsting for ways to attract new customers. Many companies share or sell information, making consumers’ anonymity less likely over time. This fact has many consumers feeling nervous about the amount of data they’re sharing and the use of those data to identify them.
The FTC website says businesses must give customers privacy notices explaining how they use and share their financial information. The FTC says there are no absolutes: “The law balances your right to privacy with a company’s need to provide information for normal business purposes.” When weighing the true cost of free stuff, consumers might do well to put their finger on the scales and opt to share less of their data.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.