What You Should Know About Credit Scores

Too many consumers are confused about credit scores. Most did not know who makes credit scores available, what is a strong score, nor the financial cost of a poor score.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions say on 22 credit score questions administered by Opinion Research Corp. to over 1,000 consumers late last month, on average, consumers answered only 60 percent correctly.

"The good news is that a large majority of consumers know the key factors used to calculate scores and the creditors who use these scores," said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.

(• Take the CFA/VantageScore Quiz to see what you do and don't know.)

Your credit score is a numerical rendition of your creditworthiness. It indicates how well or how poorly you'll repay a debt. The higher the number, the more likely you'll repay on time.

Credit scores are important, influencing whether consumers can purchase a wide range of important services and at what price, including mortgages.

What the survey found a majority consumers know is what all consumers should know.

• The three main credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- collect information on which credit scores are most frequently based (68 percent correct).

The survey also advises, an individual has many different credit scores, which are either generic or lender-based. Generic credit scores are available from many sources -- not just FICO and the three credit bureaus but also many other websites.

Most scores, however, are based on information in a credit report at one of the three bureaus, although some websites allow consumers to estimate their score by answering questions about their credit use, according to CFA and VantageScore.

• Most Americans have more than one generic credit score (71 percent correct).

• Three key ways to raise a credit score or maintain a high score are making all loan payments on time, for each credit card keeping balances under 25 percent of the card's credit limit, and avoiding opening several credit card accounts at the same time (69 percent correct).

• Many non-financial services -- such as cell phone companies (60 percent correct) and landlords (64 percent correct) -- use credit scores to determine whether to offer a service and/or at what price.

• A large majority of consumers correctly understand the following about scores: Missed payments (93 percent correct), high credit card balances (88 percent correct), and many applications for new accounts at one time (81 percent) are factors used to calculate credit scores.

It's a lot more difficult to raise your score than it is to lower it. Making a couple credit card or mortgage payments late may take a year of on-time payments to restore one's old scores.

• Mortgage lenders (86 percent correct) and credit card issuers (85 percent correct) use these scores to determine whether to extend credit and/or at what price.

The study also comes with some advice.

• Even if you have high credit scores, especially if you have lower ones, it is essential to comparison shop for credit. Major lenders use somewhat different criteria in their own credit scores, and even when they use the same score, they may assign different risks to it. For example, using the same score for an individual, one lender may place that person in a higher-risk subprime category while another lender may assign that person to a lower-risk (and lower cost) prime category.

• The value of credit repair companies is questionable. They often over-promise, charge high prices, and perform services, such as correcting credit report inaccuracies, that consumers could do themselves by just contacting the lender and the credit bureaus.

• You are entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the credit reporting bureaus -- Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion -- from the only federally-sanctioned web site for free reports AnnualCreditReport.com. Greater disclosures are coming for credit scores.

Published: March 17, 2011, Realty Times, reprinted with permission