If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to improve your credit, there are some helpful ways to achieve this goal.
Start your journey to better credit by looking over your credit reports — you have multiple ones. The Consumer Reports National Research Center found that just 53 percent of respondents in a recent survey had ever gotten their credit reports from one or more of the three major credit bureaus.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act mandates that the bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — provide consumers with free copies of their credit files once every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport. com. That Web site is the only official online access to your reports, so don’t be fooled by copycat sites. You also can get your reports by telephone or mail.
By the way, the every-12-months stipulation is an important distinction. If you pull your files the last day of December, you can’t pull them again for free until the following December, not when the new year begins.
As part of reviewing your reports, you also should pull your credit scores. You have multiple scores as well. Unfortunately, when Congress forced the bureaus to provide free credit reports, it did not include credit scores as part of the legislation.
The scores are expressed in three digits, generally starting from 300 and going up to 850 for VantageScore 3.0, the model that is a joint effort by the three major bureaus, and the widely used FICO score. Your credit scores help companies determine how much of a credit risk you may be. The higher the score, the more likely it is that you will pay your debts as promised.
But here’s the thing: Many people don’t realize that they are not entitled to free credit scores, only to their credit reports. You can pay for your scores, starting at about $15 to $21.95 for a single score up to about $60 for all three. Consumer credit scores have become a big business.
A number of companies promise access to a free score. However, the deal often comes with a catch — a trial credit-monitoring service. Forget to cancel and you’re billed a monthly fee.
There are a few sites where free means free. One is Credit Karma. The Web site just announced that it is providing free credit scores using VantageScore from Equifax and TransUnion. It previously provided the scores only from TransUnion.
When Credit Karma pulls your credit reports, it can see how much you are paying for your loans or credit cards. The site will identify opportunities for you to save money by recommending companies that can offer better credit at lower interest rates. If consumers take advantage of the offers, the lenders pay Credit Karma a finder’s fee.
“We are able to facilitate deals, but there is no quid pro quo,” said Ken Lin, chief executive and founder of Credit Karma. “A lot of people just use the score, and that’s okay by us.”
Lin said Credit Karma does not make money selling consumer information. He also said visitors to his site are not inundated with a lot of e-mail about deals. Rather, he said, recommendations for better-priced credit generally are introduced on the site while people are viewing their scores. “Our mission is to make it low-touch and high-value,” he said.
If you want to see a score for free from Experian, the bureau that is not part of Credit Karma’s offerings, go to creditsesame.com. It uses Experian’s National Equivalency Score, which ranges from 360 to 840. You also can get free Experian scores at credit.com.
Whether you get a free score or pay for one, there’s one thing to keep in mind. There are many variations of credit scores. And the scores that are provided to consumers can vary from those generated by lenders. FICO has updated its scoring model several times. But this does not mean the lenders buy the new versions. There also are companies that will generate a credit score for educational purposes, selling a score that attempts to approximate a FICO score.
More than 80 percent of consumers who obtain a credit score think the specific score they receive is what most lenders and other businesses use when determining their creditworthiness or financial stability, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
Despite the variations in scores, if your plan in 2015 is to improve your credit profile, by all means get the free credit scores. Even if they are different from what a creditor pulls, the scores still will give you helpful information about where you stand in general. With such knowledge and tips you’ll find on the sites offering the scores, you can begin to take steps to improve your creditworthiness.
Write Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.