From the Wall Street Journal
By JANE J. KIM
If you are curious about your credit scores, you may have tried one of the plethora of Web sites and services that offer some free credit information, then lure you into paying for your scores, usually as part of a credit-monitoring package.
Consumers are entitled by law to a free credit report—which is simply a record of your borrowing and repayment history—but the numerical scores derived from these reports will cost you, in part because credit-reporting agencies aren’t required by law to provide them for free to consumers along with the reports.
Now, a handful of companies are launching services that give consumers at least a glimpse at their credit scores free of charge. The sites—Credit.com Inc., Credit Karma Inc.’s CreditKarma.com and Quizzle.com—also offer a window into the key factors that go into calculating your score, what you can do to improve them and how your credit stacks up against others. Last week, for example, Credit.com launched a free Credit Report Card that shows consumers how they’re likely to rate across five credit-scoring models.
All three sites, which have ties to the credit industry, aim to make money through advertising or fees if users sign up for products their partners offer on the site, such as credit-monitoring services, credit cards or mortgages.
As banks clamp down on lending, it’s become more critical than ever to know your credit score. Financial institutions use them to determine the granting and pricing of everything from credit and insurance, to cellphone usage and, in some cases, employment.
For years, the best way consumers could get their scores was to buy them from one of the three major credit-reporting bureaus—Equifax Inc., Experian Group Ltd. and TransUnion LLC—or from Fair Isaac Corp., the maker of the widely used FICO credit score. Consumers can also get a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com once every 12 months from each of the three bureaus, but the site, which was created by the bureaus, sells scores separately, usually for about $8 each.
The reports can span pages of detailed account history, and can be hard for most people to decipher. And even if you pay for a numerical score—which financial-services companies use as a quick way to assess your creditworthiness—the information can be confusing.
There is variation among credit scores, depending on which scoring model is being used and which credit bureau the data are pulled from. Lenders can choose from FICO, the VantageScore—a score developed by the three credit bureaus—or from any one of the credit bureaus’ own scores. Adding to the confusion, lenders can choose from multiple versions of the same scoring model. FICO, for example, recently rolled out its latest version, FICO 08.
To gauge how easy-to-use and accurate the three new sites are, we pulled our credit scores—which may or may not be the actual scores lenders see—and compared the data with information in the credit reports and scores we obtained from AnnualCreditReport.com. (All three sites do a “soft pull” on your credit file, which they pay for, and which doesn’t hurt your score, according to the companies. In other cases, applying for new credit is considered a “hard” query, and can hurt your credit score.)
Getting the scores from the sites was relatively quick and painless. To get started, you have to set up an account and answer several “identity verification” questions. While you don’t have to sign up for any services or provide a credit-card number, you do have to provide your Social Security number at Credit.com and CreditKarma.com.
Quizzle.com, by contrast, uses information you provide when setting up your account to locate your credit report at Experian. Then it tries to verify your identity using information in your credit report. But if those questions are based on incorrect information—or if you can’t remember the answer—you might be prompted to enter your Social Security number.
All the sites say they encrypt any data that are stored in their files. CreditKarma, for example, strips out any personal account information from users’ data and immediately deletes the Social Security number once it is used to pull a credit report.
Overall, the information the free sites provided matched closely with what was in our actual credit reports. But the credit scores varied from the ones we bought through AnnualCreditReport.com, since they relied on different credit-scoring models. Despite the variations, the free scores were in the same credit tier as the scores we bought, giving us a good sense for how lenders would view our credit.
All the free sites provided a top-line summary of our credit by highlighting the pieces of data that they thought we were most likely to be interested in, such as how many open and closed accounts we have, our total balances and whether there were any red flags that we should be concerned about.
Credit.com’s Credit Report Card boiled down our 20-plus-page TransUnion credit report into an easy-to-digest format. The report graded us on a scale of A to F across key factors that went into calculating our score, and showed us how important each factor was to our score. While we scored a C-minus on “inquiries” (in part because we recently refinanced our mortgage), that category made up only 10% of our score. By contrast, we scored an A-plus on our payment history, which made up 35% of our score.
Credit.com doesn’t yet provide an exact credit score, but estimates where your score will likely fall across the credit-risk spectrum as defined by five major credit-scoring models, including FICO, VantageScore and other consumer credit scores. The site allows users to get updated scores once a month for free.
CreditKarma.com, which also relies on TransUnion data, gives you one of the same credit scores that TransUnion sells directly to consumers. In addition, it provides a report card grading consumers from A to F across seven key components affecting their scores and ranks the importance of each factor on a scale of high, medium or low. Users can also play around with a credit-simulator tool to see how their scores might change if, say, they applied for a new credit card with a $10,000 credit limit, or foreclosed on their home. The site allows you to check your score every day.
One thing Quizzle.com offers that the others don’t is a free credit report—and the ability to dispute errors on your Experian credit report on the site. In addition to the free score and report, Quizzle.com also offers a number of mortgage-related tools, so you can see how much the value of your house has changed. The site limits users to a new score and report every six months.
All of the sites have been retooling their models to make their scores more consistent with the scores most lenders are likely to use. On Wednesday, for example, Quizzle.com—which is owned by Rock Holdings Inc. and is in the same family of companies as mortgage lender Quicken Loans—replaced the Experian score it had previously offered. The new score is still based on users’ Experian credit files, but is designed to more closely track FICO scores, which range from 300 to 850, the higher the better.
The free sites also offered some helpful tips on how to improve our credit. To keep our overall debt usage low, for example, Credit.com warned us not to close any of our credit-card accounts, since that could cause our “utilization rate”—the amount of available credit that we’re using—to go up and our credit score to go down.
Instead, it advised us to cut up the cards to prevent them from being used fraudulently. Quizzle.com also launched on Wednesday a fee-based service ($75 for four months) that gives users personalized, specific advice on what they can do to improve their scores.
None of the free sites share or sell your personal information with other third parties, although they do aggregate users’ demographic data to help other people see how their credit compares to others.
There is some product pitching on the new Web sites. Given its ties to the mortgage-lending industry, Quizzle.com’s advice seemed more tilted toward mortgage-related solutions. The site recommended that we consolidate revolving credit-card debt into a mortgage as a way to improve our credit score.
CreditKarma.com pitched us various offers based on our credit profile, while Credit.com offered us the chance to buy our credit report and credit-monitoring services from its TransUnion partner.
We still aren’t convinced these sites are an adequate substitute for getting your own credit report. The actual reports from AnnualCreditReport.com provided many more specifics about our payment history, previous employers and addresses. They also included account numbers—making it easier in some cases to track down certain accounts—and showed us which lenders had recently inquired about our credit.