As someone who has owned/operated a credit message board for 4 years running, I get quite a bit of feedback from consumers. Based on that experience, if I had to pinpoint the #1 most confusing and least understood topic within this niche, do you know what it would be? Credit scores.
And my reason for saying that may not be what you think.
Sure, a credit score is cryptic by nature, since its formula is a secret. But that’s not why it’s so misunderstand. Rather, the reason credit scores are confusing is because most websites that sell scores are misleading consumers.
FICO vs. everyone else
If you go apply for a credit card, mortgage, or car loan, there’s a good chance the creditor will be using your FICO score as part of their decision. FICO (formerly known as Fair, Isaac and Company) has been around since 1956. They were the first in the credit scoring industry.
During FICO’s first couple decades, the scores were custom created on a case-by-case basis. For example, JP Morgan Chase might request FICO to make them a model that would place extra emphasis on a certain aspect of creditworthiness (i.e. debt to credit ratio). As a result, there was no “universal” credit score model. Banks were using different custom-made formulas.
Then in 1989, FICO created the first generic scoring model… this became known as a FICO score. Ever since then, it has been considered the gold standard. All mortgages which go through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require the evaluation of an applicant’s FICO (which must meet the minimum). But it’s not just important for mortgages… 90% of the largest banks use your FICO for credit decisions (which includes credit cards, car loans, student loans, etc).
Conclusion? Your FICO score is pretty freakin’ important!
Do you get FICO when checking your score?
Given their market dominance, obviously when you check your credit score, it’s your FICO you want to find out, right? Well unfortunately, the odds are that you are getting something totally different!
Since FICO owns their formulas, companies have to pay them to use it. As a result, a whole slew of imitating score models have popped up… because not every company wants to pay FICO’s licensing fees.
In fact, as I write this, there are only two places where a consumer can buy their real FICO score:
- myFICO.com – This is a consumer-oriented website that’s owned by FICO.
- Equifax.com – The only credit bureau that sells FICO to consumers.
Aside from these two websites, there’s nowhere else you can buy your FICO.
Is your score good or not?
What is a good credit score? Well this is the most confusing part! Unless you bought your score from those two websites, it’s not always easy to gauge whether the number is “good” or “bad” since it’s based on a different model. Some are still useful, but others not so much.
- VantageScore – This is actually the second most popular type, but it’s a very distant second; its estimated marketshare hovers around 10%. It was launched in 2006 and developed by the three credit bureaus to be a competitor to FICO. The VantageScore range runs on a 501 to 990 scale.
- CreditKarma – Even though it’s not FICO, their score is still useful because it correlates closely. It’s a proprietary model based on the TransUnion’s TransRisk score. The range is the same as FICO (300 to 850) however keep in mind that since the algorithms are different, you can’t do a direct apples-to-apples comparison. I’m a fan of their score since they (a) disclose upfront it’s not FICO, and (b) do not charge for it.
- PLUS Score – This was developed by Experian, but it’s not used by creditors. Rather, they call it an “educational” score and it’s used by websites like FreeCreditScore.com and others. It runs on a 330 to 830 scale. When comparing to FICO, I have heard people who have differences as much as 50 points between the two.
According to Experian’s website, by some estimates there are more than a 1,000 different credit scores in use today. If a website is forthright about what they’re offering you, I don’t have a problem with them using non-FICO scores. However, what I have a problem with is the fact that most credit score websites seem to mislead (or at least confuse) consumers by not being clear about the difference.
Don’t compare apples to oranges
If you’re about to apply for a mortgage or other big loan – then yes – I would say its imperative to know your real FICO. But if you’re just trying to gauge your creditworthiness, the other score types can be useful, just so long as you don’t mix them up.
For example, last week someone on my forum said they applied for the Chase Freedom and were denied with an 830 FICO score. I found this hard to believe because an 830 is an extreme rarity… you can strive for decades and still not achieve it! Not only would that score qualify you for the best cash back credit cards like the Freedom, but it also would get you the best rates on any card or loan.
Lo and behold, as it turned out this person was actually confusing their VantageScore with FICO. Anything between 800 and 899 on the VantageScore scale is considered a “B” (like the letter grade). So her 830 was still good, but it certainly wasn’t excellent. Therefore, I’m not that surprised to hear she got turned down for a cash back credit card, because they typically require high scores (especially if you have a lot of debt or other negative factors affecting you). As Ted points out, your credit score matters and you should try and keep it in the 750 range (on FICO) in order to have the best chances.
The lesson? When you find out your score, please make sure you (1) know what type it is, and (2) keep that in mind when comparing it to others.
This article was written by Mike Dolen, the CEO of CreditCardForum.
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