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How to Get an Absolutely, Totally Free Credit Score

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(And avoid the phony ones)

We no longer have to pay to learn the credit scores that play a big role in our financial lives. Certain credit cards and Web sites now offer truly free access to these crucial numbers that banks and other lenders, credit card issuers, insurers, landlords, cell-phone providers, utility firms and others may use to evaluate our creditworthiness. We also can get free credit reports—the raw data that the scores are based on—but only from one Web site. Unfortunately, amid an onslaught of catchy tunes and commercials promising free credit information, it’s not always easy to sort out the really free and useful offers from the ones with costly tricks.

Why credit scores matter: They can have a big effect on matters ranging from the interest rates we pay on loans and the kinds of credit cards we get to decisions on how much ­insurance costs us.

Offers of free credit scores are nothing new, of course, but in the past, the offers were never as attractive as was claimed. Some were not really free—they required consumers to sign up for pricey monthly credit-monitoring services. Other offers were not really very useful—the credit scores they provided were very different from the scores that lending institutions use. There still are plenty of bogus offers today amid the really free and useful ones.

Here’s what you need to know about free credit score and credit report providers…

SCORES FROM CREDIT CARDS

Three credit card issuers now offer free FICO credit scores to some or all of their cardholders. Your FICO score, which uses a scale of 300 to 850, is the best one to check, because it’s the one that is most widely used by lending institutions and others that evaluate your creditworthiness.

Barclaycard allows holders of some of its types of cards to access their FICO credit scores for free through their online accounts. As of early 2014, free scores were provided with the Barclaycard Arrival, Carnival, Frontier, Juniper, Rewards and Ring MasterCards. The company has indicated that additional cards will be added to this program later in 2014. BarclaycardUS.com

Discover automatically provides cardholders with FICO scores for free on each monthly statement. Discover.com

First National Bank of Omaha gives cardholders access to their FICO credit scores for free through their online ­accounts. FirstNational.com

Warning: Capital One also offers free credit scores to cardholders. But unlike the issuers above, the scores are not FICO scores. In fact, the scores aren’t anything that any lender is likely to access. Even Capital One itself doesn’t use these scores when it evaluates card applicants. Scores obtained through this program should be considered a vague guide of one’s credit-worthiness, nothing more. A similar American Express program called “My Credit Score & Report” also provides scores that are not used by lenders.

SCORES FROM WEB SITES

The four Web sites below provide truly free access to credit scores with no hidden charges and no need to enter a credit card number. You will, however, have to enter personal data including your e-mail address, Social Security number, mailing address and birthdate. These Web sites are likely to use the information you provide—as well as your credit score—to target you with ads from lenders and other businesses.

The scores that these sites provide are not FICO scores, but rather ­”VantageScores.” VantageScores are ­accessed by thousands of real lenders—though nowhere near as many as those that access FICO scores. These scores usually are within 10 to 15 points of the comparable FICO score, so they are a very good gauge of how lenders view consumers.

What’s more, by using several of the Web sites below, you can access ­VantageScores derived from the credit reports of all three major credit-­reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian and ­TransUnion. Each of these credit-reporting agencies maintains its own file on you, and erroneous information might find its way into your file with one but not the others.

Credit.com offers free credit scores based on Experian credit files up to once a month. Click “Get Started—It’s Free!”

CreditKarma.com offers free scores based on TransUnion credit files as often as you like (scores are updated weekly). Click “Get Started Now.”

CreditSesame.com offers free scores based on Experian credit files up to once a month. Click “Get Your Free Credit Score.”

Quizzle.com offers free scores based on Equifax credit files up to once every six months. Click “Get Started—It’s Free.”

Best strategy: Use these Web sites to obtain free credit scores from each of the credit-reporting agencies at least a few times a year, and perhaps even more often. If you see one or more of these scores suddenly dip, that’s a good time to request a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com for any credit-­reporting agency where it has dropped (see ­below).

For example, if you learn from Quizzle.com that your VantageScore based on your Equifax credit report suddenly dropped by 50 points, obtain your Equifax credit report as described below and look for erroneous information that could be dragging down the score.

Warning: Take extreme care to spell each site’s Web address correctly. If you mistype it even slightly, you could end up on a “squatter” site that a scammer has designed to look like a legitimate site. Rather than provide a free credit score, this squatter site might try to sell you credit-related services or, worse, ask for your Social Security number and other personal data so that the scammer can steal your identity.

FREE CREDIT REPORTS

The four Web sites listed above don’t just offer free credit scores—they also say that they offer free credit reports.

Unfortunately, the credit reports that these sites provide really are just general summaries, not the detailed tallies of credit accounts and loan payments that consumers need to determine whether inaccurate information is unfairly dragging down their credit scores.

There remains only one place to obtain an actual credit report for free—AnnualCreditReport.com. By federal law, each of us is entitled to receive one free credit report from each of the three credit-reporting agencies every 12 months through this site.

Helpful: In some states—Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont—consumers can obtain free credit reports more than once a year from each of the credit-reporting agencies.

50 SHADES OF FICO

Despite a common misconception, you don’t have just one FICO credit score—you have about 50. Which FICO score a lender sees when it evaluates a consumer depends on which generation of FICO software it uses…what type of lender it is (a different formula is used for mortgage lenders than for credit card issuers, for example)…and which credit-reporting agency’s file it ­accesses.

There are three major credit-­reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—and it’s fairly common for there to be differences among what these agencies have in a consumer’s credit files.

Still, knowing any one of your FICO scores usually provides a fairly accurate, although not perfect, estimate of what a lender will see when it checks your score. Though there are lots of variations of FICO scores, typically all of an individual’s scores tend to be bunched within a range of 15 to 20 points or so.

There is one important exception to this, however. The differences ­between your credit scores could be much larger if there are major differences hidden in the files maintained on you by the three credit bureaus—perhaps one has mixed your credit history together with the credit history of someone who shares your name, for example. That’s why it’s important to monitor your credit reports from all three of the credit-reporting agencies for mistakes.

MORE ON CREDIT REPORTS

For tips on “How to Fix an Error on Your Credit Report,” see the April 1, 2013 issue of Bottom Line/Personal or go to BottomLinePublications.com/FixCreditReport.

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Source: John ­Ulzheimer, president of The Ulzheimer Group, LLC, an ­Atlanta-based company offering credit-related consulting services. He is a weekly guest on The Willis Report on Fox Business Network and a contributor to credit Web sites CreditSesame.com and CreditCardInsider.com. He previously worked for Equifax Credit Information Services and Fair Isaac. Fair Isaac created the FICO credit-scoring system. JohnUlzheimer.com

Date: June 1, 2014 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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