Q&A: How to find credit scores

Dear Liz: How do you go about checking your credit scores? I’m a recent widow and have no idea how to do these things.

Answer: Checking your credit scores can help you monitor your credit and give you a general idea of how lenders view your creditworthiness. Many banks and credit cards offer free scores to their customers, so that’s the first place you should look.

Otherwise, Discover and Freecreditscore.com, a service of credit bureau Experian, offer free FICO credit scores to anyone. FICO is the leading credit score, although the score you see may not be the same one a lender uses.

There are different versions of the FICO for different industries (credit cards, auto lending, mortgages) and different generations of each formula. Some lenders use the latest version, FICO 9, while most use some version of FICO 8. Mortgage lenders tend to use even older versions.

Also, credit scores change because the information in your credit bureau reports, on which the scores are based, changes constantly. A higher or lower balance on a single credit card can cause your scores to swing significantly.

Another type of score is the VantageScore, a FICO rival that’s used by fewer lenders but commonly offered for free on personal finance sites including Credit Karma, Mint and NerdWallet. CapitalOne also offers free VantageScores to anyone, not just its customers.

It’s best to use the same type of score from the same credit bureau if you want to monitor your credit over time. It’s not very helpful to view a FICO 8 from Experian one month and try to compare it the next month with a FICO Bankcard Score 5 from Equifax or a VantageScore 3 from TransUnion.

The data used in the scores, their formulas and even the scoring ranges may be different. Most credit scores are on a 300-to-850 scale but some industry-specific scores are on a 250-to-900 scale.

Keep in mind that getting a free score means handing over information about yourself, including your Social Security number, and typically means the provider will try to market other products or services to you.

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