More people are checking their credit scores and more are knowledgeable about how the scores work, new research from a consumer group finds.
In a survey about credit scores published this week, 57 percent of adults said they had “obtained or received” their credit scores in the past year, up from about half four years ago. The eighth annual survey was commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, and VantageScore Solutions, a credit score model created to compete with FICO, the dominant score provider.
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Credit scores are three-digit numbers that lenders use to judge the creditworthiness of borrowers. A score summarizes information in your credit report, which is a compilation of information about your loans and credit card accounts. Generally, the higher your score, the better interest rate you’ll get when opening a credit card account or taking out a mortgage or car loan.
Stephen Brobeck, the federation’s executive director, called the findings “encouraging” because those who have checked their scores are more knowledgeable than those who have not. For instance, 93 percent of those who had recently checked their score knew that mortgage lenders use credit scores, compared with 74 percent of those who hadn’t.
Mr. Brobeck said the rise in the number of people checking their credit scores predated the huge data breach last year at Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit bureaus. The breach at Equifax, along with data breaches at retailers and other companies, has highlighted the need for consumers to periodically check their credit reports — rather than credit scores — to help spot fraudulent accounts stemming from identity theft.
The federation survey also found that more people were checking their credit reports — 36 percent, up from 29 percent in 2014.
In a call with reporters this week, Mr. Brobeck and Barrett Burns, chief executive of VantageScore, praised the wider availability of free credit scores.
In part because of prodding by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, many credit card companies and lenders in recent years began offering customers regular access to free scores — particularly those from FICO, created by the company Fair Isaac. In the past, consumers could get free “generic” scores, but they often had to pay for the true scores that lenders would use.
Consumers actually have multiple credit scores, depending on the type of loan, the scoring model used and the credit bureau providing the score. Most lenders get scores from Equifax or one of the other two major bureaus, TransUnion and Experian. (FICO says its scores are used in 90 percent of lending decisions. The three credit bureaus in 2006 created VantageScore, which says it poses a “rising challenge” to FICO, with about 2,200 institutions using its model.)
The range for basic credit scores is 300 to 850. Slightly different ranges may be used for industry-specific scores; FICO’s range for car loan scores, for instance, is 250 to 900. Generally, scores of 700 or higher are considered good.
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ORC International, a market research and opinion polling firm, conducted the survey of 1,005 people by landline phones and cellphones from May 31 to June 3. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Here are some questions and answers about credit scores:
Q: How can I keep a good credit score?
A: The two most important steps, the federation advises, are to make monthly credit card and loan payments on time, and to keep your card balances low — ideally, about 25 percent of your credit limit. Consumers can take a free online quiz to test their knowledge at creditscorequiz.org.
Q: What can people with scant credit history do if a loan application is rejected?
A: One way to build credit history is with a “secured” credit card, available from some credit unions and banks, Mr. Burns said. With a secured card, the consumer makes a deposit — say, $500 — and draws on the money to make purchases. Payments on the card are reported to credit bureaus, helping to establish a credit history that can eventually qualify the borrower for a traditional credit card.
Q: Where can I get free credit scores and credit reports?
A: Consumers are entitled by law to one free credit report a year from each of the three major bureaus. You can get yours at a dedicated website, annualcreditreport.com.
Free FICO scores are offered by many credit card companies and lenders; ask yours what’s available. (Discover offers free FICO scores to non-cardholders if they register on its website.) Experian offers free FICO scores on its consumer website. Free VantageScores are available through many websites, including CreditKarma.com.
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