Consumers can now get a glimpse of the three-digit number that often determines whether they can get a car loan, a home mortgage or even a job.
A Web site launched by credit bureau Equifax and credit scorer Fair, Isaac & Co. charges consumers $12.95 to view their once-secret credit scores, which increasingly determine whether people get credit and how much it costs. Links to the credit score site can be found at both companies' Web sites (http://www.equifax.com and http://www.myfico.com) and at http://www.scorepower.com.
Fair, Isaac says its scores are used in 90% of all the credit extended to U.S. consumers. Credit scores also are used by employers, landlords and insurers to evaluate applicants. After fighting for years to keep the scores under wraps, Fair, Isaac gave in to mounting pressure by consumers, lawmakers and companies offering rival versions of credit scores.
But some critics say Fair, Isaac and Equifax, one of the nation's three largest collectors of credit information, should have done more for consumers than create another fee-based service.
"It should be free," said Betsy Imholtz, director of Consumers Union's West Coast office in San Francisco. "For years we have been trying to get credit reports for free. . . . They're charging us for access to our own information."
All three credit bureaus charge $8 to $8.50 for a credit report, which details a consumer's borrowing and payment history; consumers who have been denied credit are entitled to a free copy.
Mike Cummins, Equifax's general manager for consumer business, said the $12.95 price includes the company's $8.50 charge for the report, plus $4.45 for the credit score and accompanying explanations, which include personalized interpretations of what factors influenced the score and tips for improving credit.
Credit scores are derived from information in a person's credit report; they can be hurt by late payments, bankruptcies, collection actions and liens. They also can be damaged by credit card balances that are too high or an excessive number of credit accounts--although Fair, Isaac doesn't reveal its specific criteria for how much credit is too much.
"We took a lot of care not to be super-specific," said Cheri St. John, Fair, Isaac's general manager for global alliances. "The formulas and models are very complex, and there really isn't one or two things consumers can do to raise their scores."
Instead, the company hopes to encourage a pattern of behavior--making payments on time, maintaining low balances on credit cards and not applying for too many credit accounts--to improve scores.
Consumers who use Fair, Isaac's Score Power system will get four pages of charts, details and analysis of the four main factors that determined their scores.
Imholtz of Consumers Union said the company's refusal to be more specific, and the densely worded analysis of the scores, will make the site too difficult to understand for many consumers.
"It's a complicated subject, and I give [the companies] credit for trying, but it's tough to get through all that text," Imholtz said.
Fair, Isaac originally fought efforts for more disclosure by arguing that consumers wouldn't be able to understand the significance of their scores without detailed explanations.
Consumer activists responded that people have a right to know more about their scores, and California passed a law that requires mortgage lenders to disclose the scores to loan shoppers starting July 1.
In addition, several competitors recently launched Web sites offering consumers three-digit scores using different formulas from the ones developed by Fair, Isaac, considered the world's leading credit scoring company.