A consumer class action lawsuit charges Experian and ConsumerInfo.com with misleading consumers into signing up for "free" credit reports that in fact cost $79 per year or more.

Kimberly Taylore of Tucson charges in the suit that in early 2003, she visited www.ConsumerInfo.com to obtain a "free" credit report for herself and her husband. She entered her debit card number as instructed but saw no notification that she would be charged for the report.

On June 25, 2003, Taylore said she found two charges of $79.95 each on her debit card statement, each labeled "CIC Credit Monitor Svc." She canceled her debit card and dispute the two $79.95 fees. She received a credit for one of the fees but not for the other.

Experian, the parent company of ConsumerInfo.com, is one of the "Big Three" national credit reporting agencies. ConsumerInfo.com, founded in 1995, advertises its services through more than 100 co-branded Web sites and more than 65,000 affiliates, according to the San Francisco Superior Court lawsuit.

Major sites promoting ConsumerInfo.com include Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, E-LOAN, Earthlink and Quicken.

"Defendants heavily advertise to consumers on the Internet that they offer 'Free!' credit reports," the suit charges. To obtain the "free" credit report, consumers must enter their credit or debit card number and agree to a "free" 30-day trial membership in the CreditCheck Monitoring Service.

"The overall impresson of the www.ConsumerInfo.com website offer ... is that accepting the 'Free' credit report creates no duty or obligation on behalf of the consumer," the suit charges, noting that the credit reports are advertised as "Free! Free! Free! and claim repeatedly that there is "no obligation or commitment."

In fact, Taylore's attorneys allege, consumers who accept the "free" service incur financial obligations of at least $79.95 through the use of the "negative option" marketing strategy, which requires that consumers cancel their "trial" membership before the 30-day trial period expires.

If the consumer does not contact Experian to cancel the CreditCheck service, the company automatically charges the consumer's credit or debit card for $79.95 and continues to do so annually if the consumer does not cancel the service.

The defendants' advertising and promotional materials fail to adequately disclose the charges, obligations and other terms of the "free" credit report, the complaint charges, in violation of California laws prohibiting unfair and fraudulent business practices and false advertising.

The suit asks the court to issue an injunction barring Experian and its affiliates from continuing the allegedly illegal practices and requiring that consumers be refunded all fees paid as a result of the unfair and misleading practices.

The suit was filed on behalf of Ms. Taylore by attorneys Eric Gibbs of San Francisco and Richard J. Doherty of Chicago. Similar class actions have been filed in other jurisdictions.