How Free Credit Scores Can Be Misleading

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Watch out -- your free credit score can be different from the credit score lenders see.

What's your credit score? If you've used one of the many free credit score sites or apps, or if one of your credit cards offers credit score service, you may feel confident you know the answer to that question.

But that may not be entirely true.

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Although free credit scores are legitimate, they're often not the same scores third parties get when checking your credit. A credit card company, mortgage lender, or apartment manager running a credit check could see a much different number.

As frustrating as this can be, there's a valid explanation. And it can help with understanding your credit score and with getting a more accurate idea of your score.

FICO® Score vs. VantageScore

There are two models used to calculate your credit score: FICO® Score and VantageScore. A FICO® Score is much more useful, because most lenders look at that during a credit check. But many free credit score tools provide a VantageScore. Each free credit score provider discloses this information, so you can easily double check with the service that you're using.

Here are some key differences between FICO® Score and VantageScore:

  • The age of your credit accounts has a greater impact under the VantageScore system.
  • Credit utilization has a greater impact on FICO® Scores.
  • A FICO® Score calculation requires a credit account that's at least six months old, whereas VantageScore only requires an account at least one month old.

Because of these and other variations in the scoring models, you could have much different scores under each. Some consumers report having FICO® Scores 40 to 80 points lower than their VantageScores, which can be the difference between an excellent credit score and a good or even average score.

The obvious solution here is to get ahold of your FICO® Score, but that leads to another complication.

The many different FICO® Scores

You don't have just one FICO® Score. In fact, there are several types of FICO® Scores. FICO® Score 8 is the most widely used, but there is a newer version, FICO® Score 9. There are also industry-specific scores for the auto, credit card, and mortgage industries.

To make it even more difficult, the three consumer credit bureaus calculate their own versions of all these FICO® Scores. That means you don't just have a single FICO® Score 8. You have a FICO® Score 8 with Experian, one with Equifax, and one with TransUnion.

Most free credit score services provide one type of credit score from one credit bureau. Let's say you use a service that provides your Experian FICO® Score 8. You'll be on top of that specific credit score, but maybe a lender checks your TransUnion FICO® Score 8 instead. If you're applying for an auto loan, that lender may use your Equifax FICO® Auto Score 8. If you're getting a mortgage, then perhaps it's your Experian FICO® Score 2.

This isn't a huge issue, but it is something to be aware of. While you can check some of your credit scores, a lender could always end up looking at a different score.

How to get a more accurate picture of your credit

You can get a fairly accurate idea of your credit. Here's how:

  1. Pick a free credit score service that provides a FICO® Score 8. One popular option is Experian CreditWorksSM Basic, which is free of charge and provides your Experian FICO® Score 8, updated monthly.
  2. Review your credit report with each of the three credit bureaus at least once per year. You're legally entitled to one free annual credit report from each bureau. By reviewing these, you can make sure there are no errors that could cause your credit score with one bureau to be significantly different than your score with another.
  3. If you want, sign up for a free credit score service that provides a VantageScore. Although the VantageScore model isn't used nearly as much, there are lenders that use it. You may want to know your VantageScore to have a more complete view of your credit profile.

You obviously won't get your hands on every possible iteration of your credit score. This is one of those situations where it's better to aim for good enough than for perfection. The method above is simple, costs you nothing, and keeps you up to date on how your credit score is doing.

Free credit scores have their uses

To be fair, free credit scores can be valuable despite their flaws. These services are great for credit monitoring, because they typically notify you of any changes in your file. They can give you a general idea of your credit, and of course, there are some free credit score services that provide you with a FICO® Score.

But with any credit score service, make sure you check what type of credit score you're getting. If it's not a FICO® Score, then it could be much different than the credit score lenders will see. And even when you get your FICO® Score, it's important to understand that there can be variations, since there are multiple credit bureaus and types of FICO® Scores.

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