Confusion reigns when buying credit scores
There are four different kinds of scores, three main channels from which to buy them, and countless questions raised in the process.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Buying your credit score is supposed to give you clarity about your creditworthiness. But clarity may be the last thing you'll feel.
That's because there are four kinds of scores sold to consumers, and which one you get depends on where you buy it, even though that fact is not made clear to you by those selling the scores.
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To make matters more confusing, while all four types of scores are based on the information contained in your credit reports, each uses different formulas for determining your creditworthiness and a different point system.
What's more, lenders favor one score above the others. So if you're going to bother to get one - which is usually a good idea before applying for a loan - why not buy the same score your lender sees?
Where you can buy them
A single score will cost you anywhere from $5.95 to $15.95, and can be bought at:
What you can buy
FICO: Created by The Fair Isaac Corporation, your FICO score can range between 300 and 850 - the higher, the better.
You can buy your FICO scores directly from myFICO.com, the consumer division of FairIsaac. You can also get your FICO score based on your Equifax report either from Equifax's Web site or when you request your Equifax report through annualcreditreport.com.
Experian and TransUnion, however, do not sell FICO scores to consumers, only to lenders who request them.
VantageScore: This is the new kid on the block, introduced last year by the three credit bureaus as a direct competitor to FICO, and it has just recently been made available to consumers at two of the bureaus.
Your VantageScore can range between 501 and 990 - the higher the better. In addition, your score is assigned a letter grade (e.g., an "A" is for scores between 901 and 990; an "F" is for scores between 501 and 600).
The VantageScore is now the default score sold to consumers by Experian and TransUnion, either through their Web sites or via annualcreditreport.com.
TransUnion's TruCredit score: This is a proprietary score from TransUnion that you can't buy alone but it's included when you purchase the bureau's 3-in-1 credit monitoring service.
Experian's PLUS score: This is a FICO-like proprietary score from Experian that you can't purchase alone, but it comes with your purchase of other Experian credit products such as its Experian Credit Report and Score. But, a spokesperson for the company said, "We expect that - over time - the VantageScore will become the preferred score."
So, which should you get?
Any of these scores can give you a general idea of your credit standing, if that's all you want.
And while it's rarely smart to assume anything when it comes to credit scores, in theory, if you get a high FICO score you should also have a high VantageScore, especially if the scores are based on the same bureau's report. But it won't be readily obvious whether each is telling you the same thing.
A CNNMoney.com staffer ordered her TransUnion VantageScore and her FICO score based on her TransUnion report on the same day. Her VantageScore was 821, which ranked as a B (good risk) and put her in the 65th percentile, meaning 65 percent of Americans had scores below hers. Her FICO score was 751, which put her in the 60th percentile. Generally speaking, a consumer with a FICO score of 720 or more is considered to be a low credit risk by lenders.
But we only made that comparison after analyzing both scores, the information that came with them, and then calling representatives of both companies to confirm what we suspected. That's a lot of work for something you've already paid for. And what you're paying for is a clear picture.
Even if you're willing to do all that work, you should know that not all scores are used by lenders equally. FICO remains by far the most widely used, especially in the mortgage industry. "FICO is the de facto standard," said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of mortgage information publisher HSH Associates.
To date, the use of VantageScore among lenders has been minimal at best, although it may be making some modest inroads. An article in American Banker this month cited Equifax's CEO saying that "'almost every major financial institution' is 'either beta testing or now using VantageScore and that he expects in the near future to announce adoption of the system by one or two major lenders."
In any case, you can't buy your VantageScore from all three bureaus. TruCredit and PLUS, meanwhile, are specific only to TransUnion and Experian reports, respectively. FICO scores are the only ones you can buy based on each of your credit reports.
So unless and until VantageScore significantly penetrates the lender market, you might be best served by getting the scores your lenders are most likely to see. Evan Hendricks, author of "Credit Scores & Credit Reports: How the System Really Works," suggested that "if you're going to buy a score, buy the FICO score."