It's easy to confuse credit reports and credit scores, especially since both are critical. But here's one big difference: You can get a free report, but not a free look at your credit score.
Here’s a reader question you might have wondered about as well:
Do you have any idea why we are able to get a free credit report once per year, but not the credit score? Why does that cost money, especially since it seems to be part of a credit bureau report and lenders base part of their decision on the score when considering a transaction? – Susan
Before I answer Susan’s question, let’s define the difference between credit reports and credit scores – a lot of people seem to get them confused.
Consider the classes you took in school. All the tests and papers you turned in were your class history, or report. The A you got at the end of the class that summarized your overall work was your score. Same with credit: Your credit report is the detailed history of your reported credit activities – your credit score boils it all down into a simple number.
Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs) are required by law to furnish you with a free copy of your credit report every year, but they’re not required to give you a free copy of your credit score.
Susan’s right: Credit scores are important. Here’s a video I did a while back with tips to improve yours. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more…
Why do credit scores exist?
A simple numerical score makes it easier for the bank’s computer to decide whether to loan you money. After all, it takes time, experience, and knowledge to comb through your credit report and decide whether you’re worthy of a loan, but a trained monkey can read a number and shuffle your application off to the proper stack.
The most popular score – known as a FICO score – rates your credit between 300 and a perfect 850. The higher your score, the better the deal you’re likely to get on loans. Even your insurance rates can be influenced by your credit score: Some insurers believe people who wreck their credit are more likely to wreck their cars.
Why can’t I see it for free?
Perhaps you’re wondering, as Susan is, how some company you’ve never heard of can take your personal credit information, use a secret formula to boil it down into one number, use that number to influence your life in truly radical ways, then refuse to give you a glimpse at it unless you’re willing to pay.
I’ve been wondering that for years – so have lots of other consumer advocates.
Here’s a cut-and-paste from another time I answered a similar question:
While you can get your credit report from annualcreditreport.com, you can’t get your credit score there. In fact, you can’t get your credit score free anywhere, at least not the one that’s in most common use, the one from Fair Isaac. They’ll charge you $19.95 to see it. And that’s after being forced to wade through a quagmire of up-sells.
Since your credit score is obviously super-important, and is derived from your personal credit history, you may feel justifiably confused by why you should have to pay 20 bucks to see it. The explanation for that I can summarize with one word: lobbying. The financial services lobby in this country is one of our democracy’s most powerful. To get a fair shake for consumers in virtually anything has always been an up-hill battle. In the case of getting a free look at your credit report, for example, it took years. In the case of being able to see your credit score, it hasn’t happened yet.
The Financial Reform law that passed in 2010 came close to fixing this injustice. Annual free credit scores were actually written into one version of the bill. Why didn’t that provision survive? See above: lobbying. Republican members of the Senate had this provision removed – how they could possibly have justified deleting that provision is a question for them.
In the final version, however, Financial Reform legislation only allows consumers denied a loan or suffering some other sort of “adverse action” to get a free look at their credit score.
In addition to being turned down for a loan, other “adverse actions” that could result in a free look at your credit score include an increase in your cost of insurance, being charged more for, or being denied, a car lease, or if the interest rate you’re offered on a credit card or loan is higher than one being offered for those with excellent credit.
Isn’t there anything I can do?
First, don’t believe any website that says you can get your score free, because there’s always a catch. For instance, the myFICO website features a big orange box touting free credit scores. But there’s an asterisk that leads to the following fine print…
“Start a free 10-day trial of Score Watch and instantly get your FICO Score and credit report. You may cancel at any time during the trial period; if you wish to continue, pay only $14.95/month (3 months minimum).
So one thing you might try is getting your score free, then canceling the service. But before you go down that road, make sure you set up a free email account just for spam – because even when you cancel your trial membership, odds are your email address will be sold.
You can also get a free credit score at sites like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame. But the score these sites offer isn’t a FICO score – it’s another less-used one. Better than nothing? Sure. But what would be even better is if some in Congress would spend a little less time protecting the credit industry and a little more looking out for you.