If you haven’t seen one of the many ads touting free credit scores in recent months, you must be hiding in a cave or busy shoveling snow. (Credit scores are what lenders use to determine whether to approve you for loans and credit cards and at what interest rates; the higher your score, the better your terms and rate.)
Otherwise, you’ve certainly caught Discover's It card ads saying the issuer now provides credit scores on cardholders’ statements. Along with Barclaycard and First Bankcard, Discover signed on with credit score king FICO for the FICO Score Open Access program.
Or you may have seen ads like the one for the financial-monitoring website, CreditKarma.com, touting that you can get its scores online in minutes. Others now offering free scores include the online credit-educational sites Credit.com, Quizzle.com and CreditSesame.com. Some of the consumer sites will also explain why your score is what it is and what you could do to raise your number. (In late February, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau called on the top credit card companies to make credit scores freely available to all their customers.)
(MORE: It's Time to Make Credit Scores Truly Free)
Why Credit Scores Are Not Alike
But here’s the rub: The new free credit scores aren’t all the same, so your score from one could be very different from one crunched by another.
The card issuers and sites offering free scores use different formulas and scoring ranges to calculate your creditworthiness. Some use scores created by FICO. Others use VantageScore, developed by credit rating bureaus Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Still others compute scores by working with a single credit bureau. FICO and TransUnion’s New Account Score ranges from 300 to 850; Vantage, from 501 to 990; Equifax’s is between 280 and 850 and Experian’s is 330 to 830.
A 150-Point Difference in Scores
When I compared my scores from three free providers against my FICO score from myFico.com (which charges $4.95 for the first month and $14.95 a month thereafter), I got quite a spread — including one score (from CreditKarma) that was a stunning 150 points higher than my FICO.
Which one should you get? The answer is tricky, as I’ll explain below.
(MORE: 4 Lessons to Improve Your Credit Score)
Although every scoring company uses similar criteria to determine creditworthiness (such as your payment history, amount of available credit and number of credit inquiries), each has a different way of doing it.
The new free scores from consumer sites are often “ballparks,” not the ones used by financial institutions to determine credit. Even more confusing, your FICO or Vantage score may differ from lender to lender, since each institution can tinker with the parameters.
As Christine DiGangi wrote on Credit.com: “There is no one real score. It’s not like the SATs.”
Making FICO Scores Free
Barclaycard, First National Bank and Discover have so far provided FICO scores to about 35 million Americans, according to FICO spokesman Anthony Sprauve. “Within a reasonable amount of time, we expect all 200 million consumers in the U.S. who have FICO scores will be able to get that score for free with one of the banks they have a relationship with,” says Sprauve.
(MORE: 5 Ways Your Credit Score Can Get Nicked)
“That’s great news because those FICO scores are the real McCoy,” says Consumer Reports in its new February issue.
Consumer advocates tell me that it’s best if you can get the score your lender actually uses. If you can’t get a free FICO score, though, the other non-FICO scores I’ve mentioned will give you a good idea of your credit health. But beware: To get one of those scores, you’ll have to enter personal information at their sites. Some ask for things such as your Social Security number, your pre-tax income, your available savings and your monthly mortgage payments.
Read the fine print, too: You might only receive a free credit score by agreeing to receive email solicitations for credit offers.
Tracking Your Score Is Key
No matter which credit score you get, stick with that type and track it over time, to see whether it’s rising or falling and to help keep tabs on any possible fraud.
“If someone has stolen your identity, you’ll see your credit score drop,” says Ian Cohen, chief executive of Credit.com. That’s because an identity-thief is likely to open new accounts and make fraudulent charges.
Get Your Free Credit Reports
Keeping track of your credit score, however, is not a substitute for checking your annual credit report from each of the three major credit-rating bureaus, says Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America.
Reviewing your credit reports, Feltner notes, will tell you “every account you have, every inquiry that’s been made, whether there are any contested charges or delinquencies, plus your repayment history.” Each credit bureau is required to give you a free report annually if you ask; order yours at Annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
5 Tips to Boost Your Credit Score
Barrett Burns, president of Vantage Score Solutions, offers these five tips on how to improve your credit score:
1. Pay your bills on time. This typically has the strongest influence on your score, says Burns.
2. Apply for credit only when you need it. Don’t open too many accounts too frequently. And avoid opening multiple accounts within a short time span.
3. Keep your outstanding credit card balances low. A good rule of thumb: don’t let the balances exceed 30 percent of your credit limit on any card or line of credit.
4. Reduce your total debt. “It is not necessarily bad to owe some money, but it is not good to owe too much money,” says Burns.
5. Build up a credit history. Maintaining a timely payment history for a mix of accounts (credit cards, a car loan, a mortgage) over a longer period can improve your score.
My Credit Score Plan
As for me, if one of my credit card companies offers a free credit score, I’ll definitely get it. In the meantime, I plan to drop out of the FICO program that I signed up for to report this blog post, so I won’t need to pay its $14.95 monthly fee. And I'll periodically check one of the free sites I just visited to make sure there are no unexpected or radical changes in my score.