Your FICO Credit Score:

Your FICO Credit Score: Actually, There Are Many

The widely used FICO credit score has become easier to check for millions of U.S. adults.

But consumers can’t assume that the FICO score a lender shows them is the exact same FICO score that lender—or another one—will use in evaluating an application for a credit card, car loan or mortgage.

Most consumers have dozens of FICO scores, and the exact score a lender pulls up depends in part on the credit-reporting firm that supplies it and the type of FICO score the lender chooses to use.

“It’s almost guaranteed that it won’t be the same score,” says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com, a credit-management site. That could mean consumers won’t get as good a deal as they expect.

More lenders have been offering many customers their FICO credit score without charge over the past year and a half. Lenders such as Ally Financial, Citigroup and Discover Financial Services began giving out this score under a program launched by Fair Isaac Corp., the creator of FICO scores, in late 2013.

Getting access

The score can be seen now by 65 million consumers, a big jump from 32 million late last year and around eight million when the program first launched, according to Fair Isaac, which also is known as FICO.

FICO scores, which range from 300 to 850, have a significant impact on consumers’ ability to get loans and other credit, and on the interest rate they receive. They are used in 90% of consumer-lending decisions, according to CEB TowerGroup, a financial-services research firm.

Knowing their FICO scores can give consumers an indication of whether they are likely to get approved for a new loan. Those with a low score can delay applying and work on improving it. Also, a sudden dive in the score could be a warning that someone has fraudulently opened accounts in his or her name.

More lenders plan to start showing customers their score or expand their offerings. Bank of America will start providing the score to its credit-card users later this year. Private-student-loan lender SLM, also known as Sallie Mae, soon will announce that it will expand its score offering to all its private-student-loan borrowers and cosigners.

Ally Financial will make the score available to all its car-loan customers online next month, following a pilot program that made the score available to fewer than 1,000 customers.

The moves mark a turnaround for a score that until a few years ago was a mystery to most borrowers. Before this program, consumers had a difficult time looking up their FICO score for free. A FICO website has sold consumers their credit scores for years—at a price that currently ranges from $14.95 to $29.95 a month and includes other products, such as credit reports. (There also are options for a one-time purchase.)

In most cases, customers of participating lenders can view their score when they log on to their credit-card or loan account online.

Scoring the scores

There are many reasons that the score consumers are shown through this program isn’t necessarily the same score that lenders will obtain on them when they apply for a loan.

Many lenders get a score from only one of the three big credit-reporting firms— Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—which is the score they show to customers through this program. (Mortgage lenders are an exception because most pull FICO scores from all three firms.) For example, Sallie Mae and Barclaycard, the credit-card issuer and unit of Barclays, check the score from TransUnion, while J.P. Morgan Chase, which shows some of its Slate credit-card holders their score, gets it from Experian.

If one credit-reporting firm is missing an account that another firm has on the person’s credit report, or one of the credit reports has an error on it, that can affect the credit score the firm provides the lender.

Secondly, FICO has released many updates to the score models over the years, and some lenders still use earlier versions. While many lenders use FICO 8, a score the firm launched in 2008, in evaluating applications for credit cards and some other consumer debt, most mortgage lenders use an older version.

There also are different types of a single FICO score. The “base” score predicts the risk of a borrower falling behind on payments on all types of loans.

Most car-loan lenders use a FICO “auto score” that more heavily weights prior experience with car loans. Borrowers who previously had a car loan and made their payments on time could end up with a higher auto score than base score, says Jim Wehmann, executive vice president of scores at FICO. The same setup exists for credit-card lenders, some of whom use a “bank card score.”

Mr. Wehmann says FICO requires the lenders showing scores to disclose the credit-reporting firm they receive these numbers from, the score version and the specific type if it isn’t a base score.

Lenders, for their part, point out that the score they show consumers is the one they actually use when making decisions on existing accounts.

Nearly 200 million consumers in the U.S. have FICO scores, according to the company. Most of them each have at least 60 FICO scores, Mr. Ulzheimer says.

FICO doesn’t dispute that but says the number of scores being used by lenders in most consumer decisions is far smaller. Each of the three credit-reporting firms has six or seven FICO scores per scorable consumer that collectively account for 95% of the FICO scores that were pulled in the past year by lenders, Mr. Wehmann says.

In most cases, all of a consumer’s FICO scores should be in the same ballpark—generally not varying by more than 25 points—and the score differences shouldn’t change a lender’s decision to approve a borrower, Mr. Ulzheimer says.

But varying scores can affect the interest rates a consumer is charged. As of Thursday, borrowers with a 720 or higher FICO score got an average 3.183% annual percentage rate on a 36-month car loan for a new vehicle, compared with a 4.546% APR on average for borrowers with a score between 690 and 719, according to Informa Research Services, a market-research firm.

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