Dear Liz: I bought my credit score from one of the big-three credit bureaus, but when I applied for a loan I learned my "real" score was much lower. Why are the bureaus allowed to sell fake scores?
Many consumers don't realize there's more than one credit-scoring formula. In addition to the well-known FICO score, each of the three credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — sells so-called consumer-education scores. Then there's VantageScore, a FICO rival developed by all three bureaus that uses a scale ranging up to 990 points (the top FICO is 850). Critics often call these upstarts "FAKO" scores, because most lenders currently judge your creditworthiness using the FICO.
See also: Don't fall for free credit report scams.
The bureaus say a credit score is a credit score, so it doesn't matter which one you get. But it matters to them: When bureaus sell their own scores, they don't pay royalties to the Fair Isaac Corporation, which owns the proprietary FICO formula. Fortunately for consumers, a law that takes effect July 21 will clarify the difference among the scores. The new regulations say that if you don't get the best terms on a loan, credit card, insurance policy, or utility service, you must be shown — for free — the score used to judge you. And most scores revealed will be some version of the FICO.
Each of the bureaus sells FICOs to lenders, and the formulas can be tweaked for different industries, so your revolving-credit FICO may be somewhat different from your auto-loan FICO. ( You can buy a FICO score for $19.95 from MyFico.com.) Because FICO doesn't have the same dominance in the insurance industry, people who pay higher premiums due to their credit rating will likely see the insurer's proprietary score or a LexisNexis Attract score, which uses info in your credit reports to predict whether you'll cost insurers money.
Quick tip: Score Better Insurance Rates
Several states restrict how insurers use credit information. Others (including California, Hawaii, Maryland, and Massachusetts) have full or partial bans on the practice. If your state doesn't, and your credit scores are low, buy coverage through an insurance broker who can find an insurer that won't penalize you.
As AARP The Magazine's personal finance columnist, Liz Weston offers advice on everything from car loans to home sales. Read more articles by Liz Weston.