Many consumers go beyond getting their free annual credit report from the nationwide credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. These consumers pay for monthly subscriptions to a credit monitoring service with the goal of knowing their credit score at any point in time and receiving alerts when someone uses their personal information or accesses their credit history. It takes many people by surprise when they purchase credit scores just before applying for credit only to find the lender's credit score disclosure does not match. Why is that the case, and what can you do?

What Credit Scores Tell Consumers and Lenders
Credit monitoring services and nationwide credit reporting agencies make money by selling credit reports to consumers, lenders and other businesses that use reports for decision-making. You, as a buyer, borrower or consumer, can buy educational credit scores from a credit monitoring service. Educational credit scores help you prepare to apply for loans, manage your debts and eliminate fraud or identity theft. Mortgage lenders, auto loan companies, credit card providers, insurance companies and landlords buy credit reports from credit reporting agencies. Credit reports help them determine if you will pay your bill on time, in full, every month; predict if and when you might fall delinquent on your accounts; or evaluate if and when you are likely to default on your credit obligations. Whatever they're being used for, credit reports should be based on the same information for both lender and customer, so why do credit scores differ when they're from different sources? Two reasons credit scores differ are discrepancies in reporting methods and different scoring models.

Issues with Reporting Methods
Common discrepancies in reporting methods include:

  • Consistency - not all data furnishers give information to all credit reporting agencies.
  • Timing - data furnishers may provide the same information to all agencies but at different time schedules.
  • Accuracy - changing personal information, i.e. names or addresses, has to be matched to the correct credit file.
  • Privacy - Credit reporting agencies do not cross-share details on inquiries and information with each other.

Lenders and other creditors can choose what information to report, when to report it and which agencies to report to. Some lenders report monthly to all three agencies. Other creditors, like collection agencies, may report quarterly or only when there is activity on your account. Some agencies only report to a single credit reporting agency. A one-week difference in reporting information to the agencies could make a difference in your score from each one. Since reporting agencies do not cross share information with each other, the report and score you buy may not contain the same information that the lender report and score contains.

Scoring Models
Each credit reporting or monitoring agency uses a different method to calculate your score. They base these calculations on complex mathematic, statistical or algorithmic models. Scoring models are proprietary systems and are protected by trademarks, patents and copyrights.

There are three types of credit scores that credit providers purchase:

  • Generic scores - predict general payment performance
  • Industry scores - predict performance on specific type of credit
  • Custom scores - predict performance by company's customer base

Generic credit scores are used by credit monitoring services to educate you, the consumer. You can use a credit monitoring service to learn how to get your score from what it is today to where you need it to be in the future. You can also use this service find out how late payments, opening new accounts or paying off debts may change your scores over time. Again, these are educational items and there is no guarantee you will achieve a certain score at any time.

Industry credit scores tell, for example, car lenders how you have paid your car loan, but that score may be different from a mortgage or credit card score. If you have had an automobile repossession, your auto industry score may be low in comparison to your mortgage industry score if you have never had mortgage delinquencies. Lenders may have their own in-house system to calculate a custom score based on their specific credit products and customer base. These scores often rank you in comparison to other customers and may work more like a grading curve than a general purpose credit score.

Take an Active Role in Providing Your Own Credit Information
You cannot control what credit scores you or a lender will get at any time, but you can know what information is in your credit file and keep it up to date. Make sure your name, address, birth date, Social Security number and employment information are current and correct. If you have a common name make sure other people's information is not in your credit report. If you have received collection agency notices, check for reporting with the original creditor. Duplicate items can affect your credit score. When you correct or dispute an item, make sure you do it with all three bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

The Bottom Line
Finally, educate yourself about the different types of credit scores, credit reporting agencies and credit monitoring services in the market. Visit their websites to learn about their scores and services. Here is a list of providers most often used by consumers and industry.

CreditXpert Score Affinion
Experian PLUS Score Experian
Equifax Credit Score Equifax
FICO Score Equifax

VantageScore TransUnion


Editor's Note: An error appeared in an earlier version of this article where it stated that employers checked prospective employees' credit scores. Prospective employers are not given applicants' credit scores, they are given access to a limited credit report that is created for use by prospective employers.

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