Associated Press 6:18 a.m. Aug. 2, 2001 PDT NEW YORK -- There's a lot of useful information for consumers on the Internet. There's also a lot of misinformation. Take the case of an e-mail that's been cascading across the nation with a "warning" that credit bureaus starting July 1 will be releasing consumers' personal information "to anyone who requests it" unless consumers call a toll free number and opt out. It's not true. But worried consumers have kept the phones lit up at consumer advocacy groups and trade associations. The e-mail has been so widely circulated that even the Federal Trade Commission has issued a "consumer alert" to try to set the record straight. No one knows where the erroneous e-mail originated, but many people who received it have passed it along to warn others. "We've gotten a lot of e-mails and phone calls from concerned consumers," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, California. "The high volume signals to me that consumers are very concerned about their financial privacy." Among those who got the e-mail was Vicky Hardin, a computer specialist for a Texas oil company. "It really alarmed me," Hardin said in a telephone interview. "I don't want my credit information released to just anybody." Because the e-mail was so widely circulated at her company, Hardin checked it out with police, the FBI and other authorities. "I worry about ID theft, and I wanted to make (sure) it wasn't some big scam." The problem with the offending e-mail is that, like most rumors, it contains grains of truth. July 1 was the federally mandated deadline for banks, brokerages and insurance companies to notify customers of new privacy policies. Under the rules, consumers can mail in "opt out" forms that prevent the financial institutions from sharing personal information about them with third parties. In addition, the toll-free number in the e-mail 1-888-567-8688 or 1-888-5OPTOUT is in fact a legitimate "opt out" phone service run by the nation's credit bureaus. Consumers can call the number and ask to be removed from mailing lists for unsolicited credit cards or so-called preapproved loan offers. Donald Girard, spokesman for Experian, one of the nation's largest credit agencies based in Orange, California, emphasized that "it's absolutely untrue that credit bureaus could hand out your private, personal information to anyone." To do so would be illegal under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs the handling of consumer information, Girard pointed out. "It would also be a dumb business move to violate anyone's privacy," he added. Associated Credit Bureaus, the trade association that represents Experian, Equifax, Trans Union and other credit reporting agencies, has been fielding dozens of calls and e-mails from worried consumers. "We want to make it perfectly clear that a consumer credit report is provided only to legitimate businesses for the purpose of making a determination on the extension of credit and other consumer benefits," said Norm Magnuson, a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based trade group. He worried, however, that the erroneous e-mail would take on a life of its own. "One of the great things about the Internet is the ability to disseminate information at the click of a button," Magnuson said. "The downside is that things can be picked up and relayed and keep going and going and going." Catherine Pulley, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association in Washington, said that about the only good to result from the e-mail is that "it does have people talking about privacy." She stressed that "consumers should know their rights" and suggested that if they do have concerns, they should call their banks or other financial institutions. The text of an e-mail, which is largely incorrect, that has been circulated widely and has raised the concern of many consumers: "Just wanted to let everyone know who hasn't already heard, the four major credit bureaus in the U.S. will be allowed, starting July 1, to release your credit info, mailing addresses,phone numbers ... to anyone who requests it. "If you would like to 'opt out' of this release of info, you can call 1-888-567-8688. It only takes a couple of minutes to do, and you can take care of anyone else in the household while making only one call. You'll just need their Social Security number." The Federal Trade Commission, in a "consumer alert," says "this e-mail is full of half-truths and misinformation."