Updated October 7, 2021
If credit scores confuse you, you are not alone. Between 37 to 58 percent of consumers indicated that their level of credit score knowledge was either fair or poor in a credit score survey released by VantageScore Solutions and Consumer Federation of America last year.
One of the reasons credit scores can be so hard for the average person to understand is because there can be significant differences between the credit scores you check online and the credit scores lenders use. Add on the fact that there’s no federal mandate giving you access to free credit scores (except in certain situations), and the frustration grows.
This problem has been the subject of numerous studies and articles in recent years. Just this month, Consumer Reports released the results of an investigation into five popular credit score apps — Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, Experian, myFICO, and TransUnion.
According to Consumer Reports, some free credit score apps provide unreliable credit scores to consumers (and pose potential privacy risks to your personal information). Meanwhile, the consumer advocacy organization also criticizes the companies that sometimes charge consumers for credit scores and other credit-related products.
However, there are a few problems with the findings of this investigation. The primary issue is the incorrect suggestion that the credit scores you access online somehow lack value because they may be different from the score a lender uses.
The free credit scores you get online might not match a lender’s score of choice when it evaluates your creditworthiness. Yet checking that online credit score could still benefit you in several ways.
Why Doesn’t the Credit Score You Checked Online Match Your Lender’s Credit Score?
When you see discrepancies between two sets of credit scores checked within a short time frame, the difference probably isn’t happening because your credit file changed. (But you should probably check your credit reports to be sure.) The more likely culprit behind credit score differences is that someone is using a different credit scoring model to calculate your score.
Contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t have a single credit score. There are hundreds of different types of credit scores. Yes, hundreds. No, that’s not a typo.
The idea that you have one “official” credit score or even three official credit scores (one based on data from each credit reporting company) is a myth.
Are Free Credit Scores Unreliable?
The Consumer Reports analysis suggests that credit score apps give you unreliable or unhelpful credit scores. But that premise is off base. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding how credit scores work in the lending world.
Credit scores help lenders determine your level of credit risk. Yet lenders are free to use different credit scores to guide their decisions. Some lenders even use custom credit scoring models. We’ll talk about these many credit score varieties below.
There are so many credit scores commercially available that it’s nearly impossible to track or compare them all. Credit scores — even those based on the same underlying credit information — can vary widely depending upon which scoring model calculates them.
Here’s an example. Imagine that you complete the three following tasks on the same day.
- Check credit scores online based on your three credit reports.
- Apply for a mortgage.
- Apply for an auto loan.
In all three situations, someone checks one or more of your credit scores. But it’s unlikely that any of those numbers will match. Nonetheless, all of those credit scores may still be both reliable and helpful.
Now, consider the following. If you were to weigh yourself on a scale that shows your weight in pounds and then step onto a scale that’s calibrated to display your weight in kilograms, you’d get two different numbers. Which is correct? They both are. The same principal applies to credit scores.
Why It’s a Good Idea to Check Your Credit Score Frequently
Checking your credit score online can give you an overview of your credit health. This smart habit could help you earn and keep a good credit score — a powerful asset with the potential to improve your financial life.
According to a 2017 survey commissioned by Discover, checking your credit scores often may have a positive impact on your credit behaviors. It can also help you make smarter and more informed financial decisions.
There’s value in checking your credit score, even if it’s different than the credit score a lender or credit card issuers sees when you apply for financing.
FICO vs. VantageScore Credit Scores
There are hundreds of credit scores commercially available. Yet many of these scores fit into one of two categories—FICO® Scores and VantageScore credit scores scores.
Your credit score predicts the likelihood that you’ll pay any credit obligation 90+ days late within the next 24 months.
FICO Scores have been around the longest. They’ve been available from all three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) since 1991. According to FICO, 90% of top lenders still use FICO Scores in credit decisions today.
So, if you apply for something — an auto loan, credit card, personal loan, student loan, etc. — there’s a good chance the lender will check your FICO Score as part of your application. If the lender shares your credit score with you (or you get a disclosure in the mail showing your score), odds are high that you’re looking at a FICO Score in this situation.
- 10 billion FICO Scores each year.
- 27 million FICO Scores each day.
Different Versions and Industry Options
FICO Scores come in several different varieties.
There are base scores and industry-adjusted scores like FICO® Auto Scores and FICO® Bankcard scores. Then, each FICO Score option comes in several different versions (think 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc.).
In the mortgage industry lenders still use FICO® Score 2 (Experian), FICO® Score 5 (Equifax), and FICO® Score 4 (TransUnion). But FICO® Score 8 and FICO® Score 9 are the most widely used versions all around.
So, if you check your FICO Score online, it still might not be the same type of FICO Score a specific lender would review when you apply for financing.
Where to Check Your FICO Score
There are several ways you can access your FICO Score. Some options are free, while others are not.
- Credit Card Issuers: Your credit card issuer probably checks your credit score each month as an account maintenance procedure. Some card issuers will share this FICO Score check with their customers as an added benefit. It’s called the FICO® Score Open Access Program.
- myFICO.com: myFICO offers three credit monitoring subscription packages from $19.95/month to $39.95/month. The priciest package allows you to check all three of your credit reports and FICO Scores once a month.
- Credit Bureaus: You may be able to access FICO Scores from authorized retailers — aka the credit bureaus.
- Experian offers a free monthly FICO Score on its website. The credit bureau will also advertise its CreditWorks℠ service to you. For $14.99 per month you can get annual access to FICO Scores from all three bureaus plus other credit monitoring services.
- Equifax Score Watch® gives you access to Equifax credit reporting monitoring plus a FICO® Score 8 using Equifax data once a month. The cost for this service is $14.95/month.
- TransUnion also has a credit score and report subscription service. It does not provide FICO Score access, but lets you review a VantageScore 3.0 score instead. (Read more about VantageScore credit scores below.)
Remember, there’s no such thing as an official credit score. If you purchase or get a free FICO Score from one of the sources above (or anywhere else), your lender might still see a different credit score than you do when it checks your score as part of a loan or credit card application.
VantageScore Credit Score
In 2006 the three major credit bureaus partnered together to create VantageScore Solutions. The company developed a new credit score — dubbed VantageScore — and began to market the product to lenders and other businesses.
- More than 12 billion credit scores per year (figures from July 2018 – July 2019).
- Credit scores to more than 2,500 unique users.
Different Versions of VantageScore
Like FICO Scores, VantageScore produces and sells different credit score varieties too. You won’t find industry-adjusted versions of these scores. But the company does develop and release new scoring models periodically to make sure the score remains as accurate and effective as possible.
In the last 15 years, the company has created four versions of the VantageScore model. VantageScore 4.0 is the most current.
Where to Check your VantageScore Credit Score
If you use a free website to check your credit score online, you’ll probably receive a VantageScore credit score. There are many places to access free credit scores, including:
- Credit Karma (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion and Equifax)
- Credit Sesame (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
- CreditCards.com (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
- CreditWise (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
- Nav (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion and Experian)
- myBankrate (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
- NerdWallet (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
- WalletHub (VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion)
What’s the Catch?
You’ll probably see advertising for financial products in exchange for accessing your free credit score on the websites above. If you sign up for one of those products or services, the website likely receives a commission.
That’s not a bad deal for free credit score access — especially since there’s no obligation on your end.
Keep in mind that you should always do your own research before you sign up for a financial product or service. Even if something is advertised as “best” or “personalized,” you should research and compare available offers to make sure you’re getting the best deal available.
A bigger cause for concern with credit score websites (free or fee-based) is the fact that they may sell or share your information with others. It’s understandable if you’re not a fan of this practice.
But remember, many other businesses already sell your data. The credit reporting agencies themselves sell your credit information to anyone with a legal right to access it, and your permission isn’t necessary. So, this drawback shouldn’t deter you from using reputable apps and programs to check your credit scores.
Focus On Healthy Credit
Keeping track of hundreds of different credit scores would be exhausting. Honestly, you shouldn’t even try.
For similar reasons, it would be challenging for Congress to mandate a free annual credit score for consumers. Unlike the credit reporting space, where the vast majority of lenders use data from one or more of the three major credit bureaus, lenders may utilize hundreds of different types of credit scores.
But there is something you can do to safeguard your credit health. Instead of fixating on the numbers, it’s better to focus on your three credit reports from Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.
All credit scores come from the same place. Your credit scores are calculated based upon the information which is contained in your credit file — nothing more, nothing less.
You can access a free credit report from each major credit reporting agency once every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com.
If your credit reports show regular late payments on your accounts, you’ll probably have a bad credit score regardless of who checks it (and which credit scoring model the lender uses). Likewise, a well-managed credit report with on-time payment history, low credit utilization, and other good credit habits will probably earn a good credit rating.
You may have hundreds of scores, but you only have three little credit reports. Take care of those reports and you can unlock a healthy credit score under any scoring model, and the many benefits that go along with it.
Michelle Lambright Black is a leading credit expert, writer, speaker, and credit expert witness with nearly two decades of experience in the credit industry. She is an expert in credit reporting, credit scoring, financing (mortgages, credit cards, loans), debt eradication, budgeting, saving, and identity theft. She’s featured in print monthly with brands such as FICO, Forbes, Reader’s Digest, LendingTree, Experian, and more. Connect with Michelle on Twitter (@MichelleLBlack) and Instagram (@CreditWriter).