It has been more than a decade since the Fair Credit Reporting Act was amended to make each of the three major credit-reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — provide people with a free copy of their credit reports once every 12 months.
And yet I’m frustrated that things haven’t progressed far enough to give consumers the same right to their credit score, the three-digit number that can mean the difference between great credit deals or more expensive ones.
But finally, not through law but by way of competitive pressure, major lenders are stepping up to give consumers this piece of information, which is key to not just getting credit but to securing an apartment, good insurance rates, a job or even a security clearance.
Ahead of its competitors, Discover rolled out free FICO scores on the monthly statements of millions of its card members. The scores are based on data from TransUnion. I was happy about the announcement, although it was a reminder that so many others don’t have such access to their scores.
But there is nothing like peer pressure.
This week, President Obama, in a speech at the Federal Trade Commission about privacy and how to better protect consumers from identity theft, gave a shout-out to several lenders — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, USAA, the State Employees’ Credit Union, Ally Financial — for deciding to also offer free credit scores to their customers.
This means, Obama said, “that a majority of American adults will have free access to their credit score, which is like an early warning system telling you that you’ve been hit by fraud so you can deal with it fast. And we’re encouraging more companies to join this effort every day.”
The move by these companies and others is a monumental one.
JPMorgan Chase said that in the coming months, it plans to offer FICO scores at no charge to about 10 million Slate cardholders. “Our Slate customers have told us that information related to managing their finances, such as access to their credit scores, is very important, and we want to empower them with that information,” said Paul Hartwick, a Chase spokesman. Customers with other types of Chase cards (Freedom, Sapphire, for example) will not receive FICO score access at this time, Hartwick said.
Bank of America and the State Employees’ Credit Union plan to offer FICO scores. Ally said its effort will begin with a pilot program in February and a full launch this summer. Scores will be available to Ally’s auto finance customers. USAA said it will fully implement its free credit score program to credit card holders by March and will provide the Experian VantageScore.
As good as this news is, there is something missing: consistency. Not everyone is going to get a free credit score and, for those who get them, there will be variations.
Scores provided to consumers — either ones they get free or buy — can vary from those generated for lenders. Even the scores under the FICO brand can vary. FICO has updated its scoring model several times. But this does not mean that lenders use the latest versions. So even within the FICO scoring system, the score you get free could be different from the one a lender eventually pulls when you apply for credit. Still, FICO — new or old — is the go-to scoring system for most lenders.
If your score is excellent, small variations won’t matter much, if at all. I pulled my VantageScore credit score recently through Credit Karma. Then I got my Experian FICO score offered for free at the Dollars & Sense pavilion during a recent NBC4 Health & Fitness expo. The numbers were very close. If you’re teetering between a great and good range, the variations in scores won’t matter much. If you’re just barely hanging in a decent credit range, however, a drop down to subpar credit because of a different scoring model can have a big impact on what you pay for credit.
Going forward, be sure to carefully review communications you receive from any lenders to see if they will provide free scores. And if they are not going to, ask why. This is an important enough feature that you might consider switching to a competitor that offers it.
It’s a great move by the companies to provide free credit scores. But it shouldn’t be left to their discretion. The government should mandate, as it has for credit reports, that a standardized credit score be offered for free at least as often as people can pull their credit files.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.