Free FICO Credit Scores: What You Should Know
More big banks will offer them, but there's a catch
(This article previously appeared on BobSullivan.net.)
Great news! Soon, the majority of Americans will have free access to their credit score. This is a major victory for consumers, a decade or more in the making.
Check that. Soon, the majority of Americans will have free access to a credit score. This is a very good thing. You should take advantage of the offer as soon as it’s available to you. But it’s hardly time to declare victory.
News From Citi and the White House
Most recently, Citi announced that millions of consumers with Citi-branded credit cards can now get a free peek at their Equifax-based FICO credit score by logging on to its new Citi.com/creditscore website.
(MORE: 6 Credit Score Myths Debunked)
Joining Discover, which began offering free FICO scores to cardholders last year, will be JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Ally Financial. USAA announced it will offer the FICO competitor, VantageScore, for free to members.
Confusion About Credit Scores
This is all well and good, but as Michael Schrieber wrote recently over at my partner Credit.com, it’s really important to remember that a credit score is not the credit score. Some people have as many as 50 credit scores.
“The reality is that for the foreseeable future, for many Americans, confusion is effectively built into the system,” Schrieber wrote. ”The problem is that often when people get their credit scores — particularly when they are getting them from banks — they don’t know which scoring model and bureau data are being used to generate the score. Further, some people don’t realize they have more than one score, and just assume that the score they are seeing is the score. That can be particularly confusing if you’re getting multiple scores each month from different providers. People often assume that one or more of the scores is wrong.”
(MORE: Truth About Free Credit Scores)
Here’s a little more on what’s going on, and what will be available from which banks:
Free FICO scores have become more available to consumers since 2013, when Fair Isaac Corporation announced its FICO Score Open Access program, which gave banks the right to share a score with consumers. Additionally, banks claim the scores have increased customer loyalty.
“Consumers who regularly see their FICO scores are more engaged, increasingly loyal and make positive changes in credit management behavior, resulting in improved FICO scores,” Fair Isaac said in November while discussing free score programs offered by Barclaycard and First Bankcard.
Banks That Will Offer Free FICO Scores
And the banks’ upcoming plans…
Ally Financial: Will offer FICO scores, beginning with a pilot program in February and a full launch this summer to auto finance customers.
Bank of America: “We will begin offering credit scores to our consumer credit card customers later this year. No more details to share at this point,” Bank of American spokeswoman Betty Riess told Credit.com.
JPMorgan Chase: Plans to offer FICO credit scores at no charge to Slate cardholders “in the coming months,” said spokesman Paul Hartwick. That covers about 10 millions consumers.
USAA: Will offer cardholders access to the Experian VantageScore, a competitor to the FICO score. USAA is already testing the program and expects it will be available to all consumers by March.
FICO Scores Vs. FAKO Scores
So, many consumers will have access to a FICO score — good, because FICO controls an estimated 90 percent of the score market — as opposed to a “FAKO” score, generated by folks and formulas other than the original Fair Isaac firm.
But it’s important to note: Not all FICO scores are the same.
A FICO based on a Trans Union credit report differs from a FICO based on an Experian report. Different scores are generated based on reasons a bank wants to see them — a car loan application credit score might be different from a credit card application credit score. And credit scores can, and generally do, vary with the time of the month you generate them.
“It’s far from certain that the FICO score you get from one institution will be used by another,” Schrieber said. “Even if you buy a FICO score directly from MyFico.com, it’s far from certain that the score you’ve purchased will be exactly the same as the one a prospective lender is pulling. In that case, for all practical purposes, a ‘real’ FICO score may be no better than an educational ‘FAKO’ score.”
Confused? Then you are paying attention.
Keys to a Good Credit Score
The good news is this: Free scores will certainly help with consumer awareness. A sudden drop in any score is a good indicator something has gone wrong, and many folks will now get quicker warnings about problems like identity theft or surprise alleged unpaid bills. Pay your bills on time all the time and don’t overuse credit cards and your credit score should remain high enough for you to make the financial decisions you need to make.
But most of all, remember we’re not in high school any more. With so many scores floating around, you are bound to see more people obsess over their credit score than ever before. Don’t fall for that. Grades don’t really matter. What matters is what you are doing with your life.
Don’t let the financial industry control you with a three-digit number. Yes, it’s obviously important when you plan to buy a home or a car. But try to keep it in perspective.