The nation's three largest consumer credit reporting agencies have agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle charges that they failed to consistently answer consumer calls on their toll-free lines during office hours.

Equifax, Trans union and Experian agreed to pay monetary settlements and to staff up their call centers so that their blocked call rate is no more than 10 percent and the average holding time is no greater than three minutes, 30 seconds.

The Federal Trade Commission brought the action against the companies under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The FCRA is intended to ensure that consumers are able to resolve inaccuracies in their credit reports. It requires that the credit bureaus operate toll-free numbers accessible to consumers during normal business hours.

"The reality is that consumers never got the access that the law guarantees," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "These cases demonstrate in no uncertain terms that it's time for Equifax, Experian and Trans Union to pick up the phone and meet their obligations to consumers."

The FTC's complaints against Trans Union and Experian charge that since September 1997, more than one million calls to their toll-free numbers were met with a busy signal or a recorded message. The complaint against Equifax is similar, saying hundreds of thousands of calls went unanswered.

The complaint also charges that consumers endured "unreasonable" periods of hold, trying to speak to someone about their credit records.

The companies are also accused of purposely blocking calls from certain locations and area codes.