All About Credit Scores

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Here’s an impossible question to answer–What’s my credit score? The reason nobody can answer that question is because we all have more than one score. In fact, we have many, many credit scores.

Here’s another impossible question to answer–What’s my FICO credit score? Surely there is just one FICO score for each of us, right? Nope. In fact, we each potentially have more than a dozen “FICO” credit scores. So much for FICO versus FAKO. (Sigh.)

Recently in my weekly U.S. News column I talked about the The Myth of a “True” Credit Score. Today I want to take it one step further and list for you all of the potential credit scores you may have. We’ll cover the differences between the scores, what they are used for, and how you can get access to some of them (you can’t get access to all of them).

Before we get to specific scores, we need to cover some basic information about the credit scoring industry:

  1. Credit Score = Data + Scoring Formula: Two things are needed to generate a credit score–a consumer’s credit history and a formula to apply to that data.
  2. Three Credit Bureaus: There are three national credit reporting agencies (CRA): Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. For a variety of reasons, the data each agency has on a consumer almost always varies. As a result, even if there were only one credit scoring formula, each of us would have three different credit scores, one for each CRA.
  3. Multiple Formulas: While FICO is the best known credit scoring formula, it’s not the only one. Each of the three CRAs have their own formulas, and other third parties have developed their own methods of predicting consumer defaults.
  4. Custom vs. Industry vs. Educational Formulas: If things weren’t complicated enough, there are also different formulas for certain industries (auto loans and mortgages, for example). Some lenders have developed their own custom formulas that are a well-guarded secret. And there are what are called educational scores that are sold to consumers to give them an idea of where they stand.

In fact, the industry has become so lucrative and confusing, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently published a report on credit scores. The focus of the report was whether there were significant differences between educational scores sold to consumers and the actual scores that lenders use when evaluating a credit application. The report doesn’t answer this question, but it does describe a study the CFPB is undertaking to do just that.

What was most fascinating were the sheer number of scores floating around out there.

FICO Credit Scores

FICO developed the first credit scores in the 1950s, and today the FICO score comes in many favors:

  • Generic FICO: FICO has developed generic scoring models for each of the three national CRAs.
  • Generational FICO: The generic FICO scoring model changes from time to time, and old versions of the model are still in use today.
  • Industry FICO: FICO has developed special scoring models for the credit card, mortgage and auto loan industries.

The key here is that even if you purchase your FICO score, it likely won’t be the same number a bank or other lender would see, even if they too are using FICO scores!  If you want to see your FICO score, you can get access to it at Equifax.

CRA Scores

Each of the the three national CRAs has developed its own scoring models:

And if that weren’t enough, each of the CRAs develop custom scores for clients.

VantageScore

Some time ago the three CRAs got together and decided to develop a joint score. Because they each must pay FICO a license fee to use its scoring model, they were hoping to push FICO off the gravy train. The results have been mixed, at best. One advantage, however, is that unlike a FICO score, the VantageScore uses the same formula at each of the CRAs.

So Now What?

Generally, knowing your score is only important if you either want to improve it or have a major purchase (e.g., home mortgage, refi, auto loan) on the horizon. In my view, just about all of the scores will give you a reasonable picture of your credit. If you want your FICO score, Equifax is your best bet. The downside is that it will cost you. For a free credit score, GoFreeCredit is a good option.

Published or Updated: March 7, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Jason says:

    This is incredible information – I monitor my 3 scores through truecredit monthly. I am in process of securing a new mortgage… I show a 770 / 735 / 730. The first bank that ran my credit came back with 687 / 688 / 680 – I have been looking all around for an answer…. this helps a lot. It’s crazy and I am sure lenders use this to their advantage… Thanks!

    • DR says:

      Jason, thanks for sharing your information. The difference in your scores is much greater than I imagined it would be. Best of luck with the mortgage.

  2. KDB says:

    Exactly why focusing on your credit “score” is not the right approach. Instead, focus first on good credit habits – paying on time, reducing debt, not opening too many accounts. Then, get a copy of your credit report and make sure the details are accurate, and get a good credit repair manual to get the bad stuff removed. This is a more meaningful way to approach credit.

  3. I use CreditKarma.com to get one of my scores (I think it’s Transunion) for free whenever I like and make sure all 3 of my reports are correct regularly. That combo seems to make sure we stay where we expect.

  4. whocares says:

    I get my Credit Karma scores several times a week. (although they rarely change).

    I check my quizzle & credit sesame scores every 3-6 weeks.

    Never paid for a single score and never will. Never even signed up for the free trial deals because I fear that cancelling will be an issue which could mean more trouble than its worth.

    I got a tax lien late last year and it killed my transrisk score. From 769 to 681. After I got my taxes squared away, the lien was released but that only made my score go up to 692 which was very disappointing. Then I petitioned the IRS to WITHDRAWL the tax lien and now I am right back where I was….769.

    The IRS never used to withdrawl tax liens, thats something they changed just this year. I am lucky.

    Ive pretty much determined my score is about as high as its likely to go unless I obtain a mortgage or car loan and since both my car & house are paid for and I have plenty of cash reserves, I cant imagine ever doing either.

    The only thing Im really interested in credit wise is promotional deals where you get a large bonus for signing up and/or a better rewards card than I currently carry.

    Chase has a $150-200 bonus offer with a new card but I fear they would reject me since I already have a chase card that I rarely use.

  5. whocares says:

    Oh, in case anyone cars, My credit karma scores are
    Transrisk=769
    Auto Insurance=870
    Vantage score =882

    The auto insurance & vantage scores were not available back in Nov when my tax lien hit.

    Quizzle=686 (76 days old, they dont show the tax lien release)
    It was 713 on 10/9/09 before the tax lien.

    Credit Sesame=710 up from 702 last month.

  6. Ali says:

    My credit score through Transunion is 881, but with a grade of B.
    Why might that be?
    Over the past couple of years I have gotten and canceled a handful of credit cards for airline miles, but would that affect my Grade but not my score?
    Thanks for any help.

  7. Ali says:

    My credit score through Transunion is 881, but with a grade of B.
    Why might that be?
    Over the past couple of years I have gotten and canceled a handful of credit cards for airline miles, but would that affect my Grade but not my score?
    Thanks for any help.

  8. Nostradamuz says:

    Bob the lenders want FICO scores only, and me too. The non-FICO scores are a cloud. The consumers can get only 3 generic or classic FICO scores (300-850) of their 49 FICO scores, in the FICO website (myFICO): TransUnion (old version of 1998), Equifax (version of 2004), and Experian (lastest version of 2008). The generic Equifax FICO score (version ?) also can be got in the Equifax website. Some credit cards offer a free generic TU FICO score ( ex. Walmart credit card, Barclaycard Rewards, Discover it credit card).

    • Nostradamuz says:

      A mistake. Some lenders want non-FICO scores ( ex. Credit Optics score, Application score).

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