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The difference in all your credit scores

Plus: Answers to reader mail on improving your credit after bankruptcy and reputable 'work-at-home' companies.

By Gerri Willis, CNN

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Question: I pulled my credit report and got a similar credit score from TransUnion and Experian. However, the FICO score I got from Equifax was lower by 177 points. Why is there such a discrepancy? - Larry, New York City

Wouldn't life be so much easier if we had one credit score? Nonetheless, we must contend with three different scores. The reason your credit scores vary so widely is that they are based on different criteria.

Each bureau has different information they use in your report. An auto lender may only send reports to two credit bureaus, for example. Plus, all three bureaus compete for access to public records.

The bureaus hire thousands of people to sift through courthouse records. They look for information on tax liens, whether you've been sued by anyone, or even if you've filed a suit in a small claims court. And remember, since Equifax is based on the Eastern seaboard, it's likely to have better information on residents there. The same goes for TransUnion in the Midwest and Experian on the West Coast.

Second, each credit bureau uses a different mathematical formula to calculate your score. In Experian's calculation, how many timely payments you've made is more heavily weighted, whereas at another bureau, how many accounts you have open is more important.

Question: What is the best way to improve your credit after bankruptcy? Should I take out a small loan and pay it off? - Greg, West Virginia

The solution to your credit woes isn't automatically to do more borrowing. Look at what caused the bankruptcy to begin with. Was it some misfortune? Or, was it because of excessive borrowing? If you couldn't pay off your loans, you'll want to avoid behaviors that would counteract your positive financial moves.

Instead, concentrate on taking small steps to rehabilitate your credit, says Greg McBride of Bankrate.com. Build an adequate savings cushion. If you can handle a credit card responsibly, that goes a long way toward repairing your credit. Making timely payments is what's going to restore your credit.

Question: Where can I find a list of "reputable" work from home companies? So many of them are "rip-off" agents. - Carolyn, Arkansas

Who couldn't use a little cash around the holidays? But you really have to be careful what "work-at-home" company you chose to work for because many are merely scam artists.

These "work-at-home" con artists target senior citizens, the disabled, and mothers who want to stay at home with their children. You'll want to be wary of the following: Overstated claims of product effectiveness; guaranteed or exaggerated potential earnings or profits; requirements of money for instructions or products before telling you how the plan works; claims of "no experience necessary."

Consider it a warning sign if you have to buy something in order to start the program. To check the legitimacy specific work-at-home company, check first with your local Better Business Bureau.

Question: We installed a solar power system this year and are only aware of a one-time credit from both the state (NY - $5,000) and the federal government ($2,000). I would love for the federal credit to be annual, please let me know. - Jim, New York

You can only claim the federal and state tax credit for the year you install the system, says Donna LeValley of JK Lasser. So if you had all the work done in 2006, you will get a credit for 2006. However, if you decide to put in some additional paneling next year, you'll be able to claim a credit for that year too.

And some of you are asking about the phone rebate credit that's new this year. You can file for an automatic rebate for $30 if you own a phone (and cell phones count!). You can get up to $60 back for a family of four. You only need to fill out an additional line on your regular income-tax.

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25 rules to grow rich by

Credit score do's and don'ts

When debt collectors are wrong

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send e-mails to toptips@cnn.com or click here - each week, we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and CNNMoney.com.  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.