FICO vs. Fakes: Are You Getting the Wrong Credit Score?

By Miranda Marquit. Last updated 8 January 2013. 0 comments

If you’ve applied for a loan recently and had your credit score pulled, chances are you are aware that you have more than one credit score. FICO issues a score, and each of the three major credit bureaus also offers its own credit score, too.

Knowing your credit score is important for wise financial management . But you should understand which credit scores are “real” and which are “fake.” (See also: 10 Surprising Ways to Negatively Affect Your Credit Score)

What Is a FICO Score?

This is the credit score most lenders use to determine your creditworthiness. The FICO score comes from the Fair Isaac Company, which has developed an algorithm to determine your creditworthiness using information contained in your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian).

Lenders and others buy access to the algorithm. Fair Isaac offers different credit scores that emphasize specific borrowing behaviors, such as varying weights for different actions like buying a home or buying a car.

Your FICO scores from each of the three different credit bureaus are different, too. FICO’s formula is applied to the information in each of your credit reports, and since your information may not be the same in all three, your scores can differ.

Each bureau has a different name for its FICO, but they all come from Fair Isaac:

  • Equifax = BEACON Score
  • TransUnion = EMPIRCA

What about Experian, the other of the big three credit bureaus? If you attempt to buy a FICO score from Experian, you’ll be out of luck. Experian offers its own, non-FICO credit score for purchase.

Fair Isaac has a fairly tight grip on the credit scoring industry, but that doesn’t mean that no one else has developed their own credit score algorithms. The catch? These scores might not be what lenders — particularly mortgage lenders — use to determine your creditworthiness.

FAKO Scores and Your Credit

Other credit scores have acquired the designation FAKO (from “fake-o”). For the most part, these are not FICO scores. Instead, they are scores from companies that have developed their own scoring models. These scoring models look similar to FICO scores, and even have a similar scale. Some examples include:

  • VantageScore: This is a scoring model developed by the three major credit bureaus together. It includes information from all three reports. You can get your VantageScore from each of the three credit bureaus. It was designed to compete with FICO, but so far, few lenders actually use it.
     
  • PLUS: Experian developed its own credit scoring model, based on information in the Experian report. However, this is a consumer credit score and not used by lenders. It’s purely educational.
     
  • TransRisk: The credit bureau TransUnion developed the TransRisk score based on information from that bureau.
     
  • Experian credit score: This is a score based on the information in your Experian credit report and based on Experian’s proprietary model.

It’s true that these scores can provide you with a general idea of your creditworthiness, but since they are not widely used, they might not actually tell you how lenders see you.

Alternative scores can help you keep tabs on your credit situation and alert you to potential problems, but they can’t replace your FICO score.

Where to Get Your Credit Scores

You can buy your FICO score directly from the source at myFICO.com, but you can also purchase your FICO score from two of the three major credit bureaus.

TransUnion and Equifax each sell a version of the FICO score based on their own information. Each of the three major bureaus also sells a score based on their own models, and you can purchase your VantageScore from each of the bureaus.

While it might be worth it to purchase your FICO score, though, it usually isn’t worth the cost to purchase a FAKO score. You can usually find these alternative scores for free at web sites like Quizzle, CreditKarma, and CreditSesame. Keep tabs on your situation with free scores, but if you are serious about fixing your credit before applying for a major loan, check your FICO score.

It’s also important to watch out for those “free credit score” web sites. First of all, most of them offer FAKO scores, rather than FICO scores. Secondly, you normally have to sign up for a credit monitoring service in order to get your “free” score. You are much better off going through official channels to get your credit score.

What About a Free FICO Score?

While it’s fairly easy to find FAKO scores for free, getting your free FICO score is a little more difficult. (Remember, your FICO score isn't the same thing as your free annual credit report.) For the most part, you will need to pay $19.95 at myFICO in order to see your score. That’s $19.95 for one score based on one bureau, so you will have to pay another $19.95 for another score. (Experian charges $15.95 for its non-FICO score.)

It is possible to get a free credit score if you have been denied credit or if you don’t receive the best possible terms. However, lenders only have to provide you with the credit scoring method used and an explanation of why you were denied credit.

A recent law requires lenders to either provide you with the credit score used (so, if it’s FICO, you get the FICO score) OR provide you a Risk-Based Pricing Notice. This means that lenders can get around providing you with a free copy of your credit score by analyzing why you didn’t get the best rate or why you were turned down.

It is possible to sign up for a free trial at MyFICO in order to see your credit score for free. However, you have to remember to cancel before the end of the 10-day trial period in order to avoid being charged $14.95 per month (a three-month minimum applies).

Bottom Line

Your credit score is a numerical representation of your creditworthiness. Banks and other lenders use it to make judgments about whether to approve your loan, and what terms you receive. The most common score used is the FICO score; if you are going to pay for a score, make sure it’s that one.

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