In today’s banking environment, the decision to offer you a mortgage or grant you a credit card sometimes comes down to one simple thing: your credit score. Based on information in your credit report, this numerical rating provides an easy way to assess your risk of defaulting on a loan. No wonder, then, that consumers are eager to find out their score, and if possible, as part of a free credit check.
Avoid Getting Trapped
There is a multitude of websites claiming to offer credit scores at no cost. However, there’s a big problem with many of them: They’re not actually free.
When visitors sign up, they’re often enrolled, unwittingly, in a credit monitoring service that charges a monthly fee. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attempted to clamp down on this practice. It required “free” sites to provide a warning that, under federal law, the only authorized source for no-cost credit reports (though not for free credit scores) is AnnualCreditReport.com.
Credit tracking companies deftly maneuvered around these notifications. FreeCreditReport.com, perhaps the most well-known of these sites, began offering credit scores for $1 (and then donated the $1 to charity) in order to avoid the FTC rule. As reported by The New York Times, consumers who requested their score then received a trial subscription to a monthly credit monitoring service. If they didn’t cancel it within seven days, they were charged $14.95 a month. However, FreeCreditReport.com is now overtly marketed as “a part of Experian,” the well-known credit bureau, and claims to offer free credit monitoring with “no credit card required.”
The $1 gambit, however, simply seems to have migrated. CreditCheckTotal.com currently offers three credit reports and a FICO score for $1 for a seven-day trial membership in something called Experian CreditCheck Total. After seven days, during which you can cancel your membership at any time, you will automatically start paying $29.99 per month for the service (pretty much double the tariff charged in 2010), and though you may cancel at any time, the fine print says that “you will not be eligible for a prorated refund of your current month’s paid membership fee.” Vigilance is clearly still required.
Top Sites for Free Credit Reports
Though some websites use the term “free” liberally, there are actually more places than ever to get a truly no-cost credit report. These include:
- Credit Sesame (which, at the time of writing, is also one of the best credit monitoring services currently available)
- Credit Karma
- Bankrate (formerly Quizzle)
- Intuit Mint
Rather than making money directly from consumers, these firms either collect advertising revenue or charge their lending partners a fee when they get a new customer through the site.
If you’re waiting for a catch, here it is: The numerical rating that these sites provide isn’t the FICO score that most banks rely on to make lending decisions. Rather, they give you a VantageScore, created in collaboration with the top three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. It uses the same basic information from your credit reports but employs a somewhat different mathematical formula to compute the score.
That’s not to say VantageScores aren’t valuable. They’re still useful for tracking overall trends in your credit and generally offer an approximation of what lenders use.
Top Sites for Free Credit Scores
If you’re interested in seeing your actual FICO score, you might want to check with your bank or credit card company. A growing number of credit card issuers now offer truly free credit scores as a way to entice new customers. They include:
- American Express
- Bank of America
- Wells Fargo
Anyone else may have to pay if they want their actual FICO score by visiting myFICO.com. The site offers single-time and monthly packages. The recurring ones are $19.95 (basic), $29.95 (advanced), or $39.95 (premier) per month, with the advanced and premier plans including identity theft monitoring.
The two single-time packages are $19.95 for a report from just one credit bureau and $59.85 for a report from all three. Of course, the more you pay, the more features you receive.
As noted above, if you just want to read your credit report without seeing your score, you can do that once a year, completely free, at AnnualCreditReport.com. The nice thing about this government-sanctioned site is that you can request reports from all three bureaus. Because some banks use only one or two of the reports to make lending decisions, it’s always a good idea to make sure that all three contain accurate information about your borrowing history.
The Bottom Line
Though the FTC has tried to increase transparency, some websites offering “free” credit scores have found a way around those rules. If a website asks for your credit card number before providing a score, expect to find a fee to appear on your bill before too long. Of course, because there are resources for seeing this data for free, that’s probably where you should start your search.