Think You Just Bought Your “Real” Credit Score? Think Again

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Conventional wisdom says before you make a big purchase like a house or a car, go online to check your credit score. Although you can get one report per bureau per year for free through, you have to pay to see the actual numeric score. The trouble is, the score you pay for isn’t the score lenders use, and a new study shows roughly one in five of us get a score that’s very different from the one lenders see — and there’s no way to find out if you’re in that unlucky minority. 

We’ve discussed earlier how the scores you can buy generally aren’t the same ones seen by lenders, but no study has ever explored just how different those figures could be until now. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau looked at 200,000 anonymized credit files and compared the scores consumers get when they buy with the ones that lenders purchase. It used four credit-quality brackets for the study: below 620, 620-680, 680-740 and above 740.

In 73% to 80% of cases, the results were pretty close, enough so that people stayed in the same credit bracket. However, the CFPB found that in 19% to 24% of cases, the differences between scores were big enough that people jumped up or down one credit category. Up to 3% of consumers’ files had scores that were so far off it would knock them two categories up or down the spectrum. “If some creditors use narrower score ranges, then a smaller share of consumers going to those creditors would have an accurate view,” the report says.

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The study shows not everyone is equally affected by the discrepancies. Older, higher-income people and those who live in zip codes with lower minority populations tend to have greater fluctuations between scores, an occurrence the CFPB attributes to the relatively higher average scores of these groups. “It is easier to statistically distinguish a consumer that poses, e.g., a 20% default risk from a consumer that poses a 10% default risk than it is to distinguish a consumer that poses a 2% default risk from a consumer that poses a 1% default risk,” the report says.

The frustrating thing is that, aside from asking the lender, there’s no way for a borrower to know if a score they bought is anywhere near the score the lender saw. Credit bureaus don’t sell the scores used by lenders to regular people, which is a bone of contention with consumer advocacy groups. In response to the study, the National Consumer Law Center says Congress should pass legislation that gives Americans the right to access all the scores connected to their credit histories.

Norm Magnuson, spokesman for the Consumer Data Industry Association, the trade group that represents credit bureaus, defended the industry’s consistency. “The CFPB study found a high correlation among scores,” he says. He adds that the CDIA is going to start a consumer education campaign about understanding credit scoring and reports.

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This will certainly help. The CFPB notes, “It is unclear the extent to which consumers understand that multiple scores exist in the marketplace. It is likely that many consumers incorrectly believe that the scores they purchase are the same scores used by lenders in evaluating their applications for credit.” Credit bureaus need to make it clear that there’s the chance that the score you buy could be different, perhaps very different, from the one a lender sees.