Q&A: Credit scores come in many forms

Dear Liz: I am now getting my credit score from three different places: my bank, one of my credit cards and a free online site. Why are all three of the scores always different?

Answer: You don’t have one credit score, you have many and they change all the time. Furthermore, you’re probably looking at scores created with different formulas that may be using information from different credit bureaus.

The FICO 8 is the most commonly used score, but the number you see may vary depending on whether the data is drawn from Equifax, Experian or TransUnion credit bureau and when the score was created. Your scores will change as lenders update the information in your credit report. FICO scores may also be tweaked for different industries, such as credit cards or auto loans, and be on a 250-to-900 scale rather than the 300-to-850 scale of other FICO scores. FICO scores also come in different generations, so your FICO Bankcard Score 2 may be different from your FICO Bankcard Score 5.

Free sites typically offer VantageScores, created by the three bureaus to be a rival to FICO. These scores are also used by lenders, but not to the same extent as FICO scores.

Q&A: The reasons behind falling credit score

Dear Liz: Please explain to me how one’s credit depreciates. After paying off my home, my credit score went from mid-700 to mid-600. There were no changes or inquiries. I built it back up to 734, got into a tight spot and took a loan from my bank. I just checked the score again and now it’s 687. I have not been late or missed a payment. I thought keeping current on all payments and in some cases paying more would help, but it’s not. I need some help and direction.

Answer: We’ll assume that you’ve been monitoring the same type of score from the same credit bureau. (You don’t have just one credit score, you have many, and they can vary quite a bit depending on the credit bureau report on which they’re based and the formula used.)

Paying off a mortgage could have a minor negative impact on your credit scores if that was your only installment loan. Credit score formulas typically reward you for having a mix of installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards.

But the drop shouldn’t have been that big. Something else probably triggered the decline, such as an unusually large balance on one of your credit cards.

Scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using, so you may be able to restore points by paying down your debt if you carry a balance or charging less if you pay in full each month. There’s no advantage to carrying a balance, by the way, so it’s better to pay off your cards every month.

Q&A: Building an emergency fund beats out building credit

Dear Liz: I am trying to raise my credit scores, which are very low. I have one negative mark on my account from a paid collection and I just got my first secured credit card. I have a bit of extra money right now and I’m wondering what’s the best way to use it to raise my scores. Should I get another secured credit card from a different issuer, get a secured 12-month loan through my financial institution or something else?

Answer: People rebuilding their credit often overlook the importance of an emergency fund. Having even a small amount of savings can keep a financial setback, such as a decrease in income or an unexpected expense, from causing you to miss a payment and undoing all your efforts to boost your scores. You can start with just a few hundred dollars and slowly build the fund over time.

Adding an installment loan can assist with building credit as well, but a secured loan may not be the best option if money is tight. The cash you deposit with the lender as collateral for the loan won’t be available again until you pay off the loan. Consider instead a credit-builder loan, in which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit to be claimed when you’ve finished making the monthly payments, typically after one year. That means you can keep the cash you already have for emergencies. Credit-builder loans are available from some credit unions and Self Lender, an online company.

You’ll want to make sure both the credit card issuer and the installment loan lender are reporting your payments to the three credit bureaus. If your accounts don’t show up on your credit reports, they’re not helping to build your scores.

In addition to making payments on time, you’ll want to avoid using too much of the available credit on the card. There’s no bright line for how much to charge, but typically 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better and 10% or less is best. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay it off in full every month because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

Q&A: Here are some ways you can improve your credit scores

Dear Liz: Two years ago I got out of prison after being there for nine years. I lost everything that I had. When I got out, my credit rating was 565. I recently bought a car and have made four payments so far. Can you tell me when I might have good credit again?

Answer: As long as you continue to make on-time payments, you should see gradual improvement in your scores. It’s impossible to predict how long it might take to achieve “good” scores, though. That depends on the information that’s in your credit reports, what credit score formula is used and what’s considered “good” by whichever lender is evaluating your application.

You should first make sure your payments are being reported to all three credit bureaus. Unfortunately, some car dealerships that specialize in bad-credit lending don’t report their loans, which means your payments wouldn’t be helping your scores. If that’s the case, consider getting a credit builder loan. These loans, typically offered by credit bureaus, put the amount you borrow into a savings account that you can claim after making 12 monthly payments.

Payments should always be made on time, by the way. A big chunk of your credit scores is determined by your payment history. Your low scores mean you fell seriously behind on your obligations, but even a single skipped payment can hurt. Consider putting payments on automatic so there’s no chance of a lapse.

Another large portion of your scores is determined by credit utilization, or how much of your available credit you’re using. Paying down an installment loan over time helps that ratio. So, too, does paying down or lightly using a revolving account such as a credit card. If you don’t have a card, consider applying for one. There may be a small initial hit to your credit scores, but that will fade quickly. People with bad credit often need to start with a secured credit card, which requires you to deposit a certain amount — typically $200 or more — with the issuing bank. Use only a small portion of your available credit — 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better, 10% or less is best. Pay the bill in full each month, since there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

Another way to speed up your credit rehabilitation is to be added as an authorized user to the credit card of someone with a solid credit history. This other person doesn’t have to give you access to the card itself, but naming you as an authorized user may allow that person’s history with the card to be imported into your credit reports. Not all credit card issuers report this information, though, so the primary cardholder would need to ask. It’s also important that the other person continue to behave responsibly with credit. If the primary cardholder misses a payment or maxes out the card, your scores could be hurt, too.

You can track your progress using one of the many websites offering free credit scores. Your bank or the credit card issuer may offer free scores as well. The scores likely won’t be the same score a lender might use to evaluate you, but they should give you a general idea of where you stand.

Q&A: Get your credit score ready for the home-buying process

Dear Liz: What score do you need to be approved for a mortgage? Is 520 even close? If not, how do I get that score higher quickly?

Answer: A score of 520 on the usual 300-to-850 FICO scale is pretty bad. Theoretically, you might be able to get a mortgage if you can make a large down payment, but you’ll have more options — and pay a lot less in interest — if you can get your scores higher.

That, however, takes time. You need a consistent pattern of responsible credit behavior to start offsetting your mistakes of the past. If you don’t already have and use credit cards, consider applying for a secured credit card, which requires a cash security deposit, typically of $200 or more. You’ll get a credit limit equal to your deposit. Using the card lightly but regularly, and paying in full every month, can help your scores.

A credit builder loan, offered by credit unions and the online company Self Lender, is another way to improve your credit while building your savings at the same time. The money you borrow is put into a savings account or certificate of deposit that you can claim once you’ve made 12 monthly payments. Making your payments on time helps improve your credit history and scores.

Taking a year to build your credit also would give you more time to save for your down payment and for closing costs. Rushing into homeownership is rarely a good idea, so take the time you need to get your financial life in order first.

Q&A: How to improve your credit score and whether you should bother

Dear Liz: My credit scores are good, but I was wondering if there is a way to bring your scores to 800 or more if your income isn’t that high. I always pay my bills on time and my credit card off each month. In the last two years, I took out a small loan to pay off a car, then paid off furniture and now am paying on six new windows for my home.

My FICO scores run from 747 to 781. I’m told the reason they aren’t higher is that the number of accounts I have is too low and that my credit report shows no recent nonmortgage installment loans or “insufficient recent information” about such loans. I’m pleased that my scores are that high, but they say you get the best low-interest loans with a score over 800.

Answer: It’s not true that you need FICO scores of 800 or above to get the best deals. The best rates and terms typically are available once your scores are above 760 or so on the usual 300-to-850 FICO scale. Some lenders set the bar lower, to 740, 720 or even less. Also, your income is not a direct factor in your credit scores — although having a higher income can lead to creditors granting larger lines of credit, which could favorably impact your scores.

If what you’re after is bragging rights, there are some ways to boost good scores even higher.

The easiest may be to make more frequent payments on your credit card to reduce your credit utilization, or the amount of available credit you’re using. If your issuer reports your statement balance each month to the credit bureaus, paying off what you owe a few days before the statement closing date will reduce your apparent credit utilization. Just remember to pay off any remaining balance once you get your bill.

Another approach would be to apply for another credit card and spread your purchases between the two cards, which also can lower your credit utilization. Either way, continue to pay your cards in full, since there’s no credit scoring advantage to carrying a balance.

Taking out another installment loan could boost your scores, but it’s not smart to borrow money you don’t need if your scores are already good.

Remember, too, that there are many different credit scoring formulas. There are different versions and generations of the FICO score as well as FICO rivals such as VantageScore.

If you achieve an 800 with one type of score, you might not with another — and whatever score you achieve, you might not keep for long. Your scores fluctuate all the time, based on the changing information in your credit files.

It’s worth the effort to improve bad or mediocre scores because those can cost you in many ways such as higher interest rates, higher insurance premiums, bigger utility deposits and fewer options for cellphone service. Improving already good scores doesn’t offer much if any payoff, so it’s usually not worth incurring extra costs to do so.

Q&A: Here’s how to find that annual free credit report

Dear Liz: Please tell me the website for the free credit check. At a department store checkout counter, a stranger’s name came up connected to my cellphone number. I think I should check my credit reports, but I don’t want to pay for what I understand I can get free.

Answer: It’s entirely possible a clerk simply made a mistake in entering another customer’s phone number. But you should be checking your credit reports regularly anyway, and this is as good an excuse to do so as any. The federally mandated free site can be found at www.annualcreditreport.com. Searching for “free credit reports” can turn up a number of other sites, so make sure you use the correct one.

Q&A: How to protect your financial data in the wake of the Equifax breach

Dear Liz: Do I have the right to notify the credit bureaus that I do not want any of my financial information stored in their files? They don’t seem to be that secure. I rarely borrow money and the three financial institutions I deal with have all the data they need to lend me money if I need some. I do finance a car on occasion, because if they want to lend me money at less than 1%, why not?

Answer: The short answer is no, you have no right to stop credit bureaus from collecting information about you. You also can’t prevent them from selling that information or keeping it in inadequately secured databases.

One thing you can do is to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus to prevent criminals from using purloined information to open credit accounts in your name. But that will cost you.

The only bureau currently waiving the typical $3 to $10 fee for freezing credit reports is Equifax, the credit bureau whose cybersecurity incident exposed Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive identifying information for 143 million Americans. The other bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, are still charging those fees.

You’ll have to pay an additional $2 to $10 each time you want to lift those freezes, which you’ll probably need to do if you apply for new insurance, apartments, cellphone service, utilities and, of course, credit. Financial institutions may indeed have plenty of information about you, but probably wouldn’t lend you any money without access to your credit reports or scores. Freezes also are a bit of a hassle because you need to keep track of a personal identification number, or PIN, to lift the freeze.

Just in case you weren’t irritated enough by this state of affairs, understand that freezes won’t stop other types of identity theft, such as someone getting medical care in your name or giving the police your information when they’re arrested. Still, instituting freezes is probably the best response to the most devastating breach yet.

Q&A: Making sure your free credit report really is free

Dear Liz: Please tell me again how to get my free credit report each year.

Answer: You can get a free annual look at your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. If you search for “free credit report,” you may wind up at a look-alike site, rather than the federally mandated one. A good clue that you’re on the wrong site will be if you’re asked for a credit card number.

Your free reports don’t include free scores, which are the three-digit numbers lenders and others use to judge your creditworthiness. Your bank or credit card companies may offer free scores, or you can sign up with one of the many sites that offer them. Keep in mind that there are different types of scores, and the one that you’re seeing may not be the same as the ones your lenders use.

Q&A: How long will a tax lien linger on a credit report?

Dear Liz: You wrote an article about how the credit bureaus are removing civil judgments and tax liens from people’s credit reports. I’ve been denied credit due to a few tax liens. Creditors won’t negotiate, even though the IRS has already deemed me unable to pay due to my disability. (I’m receiving Social Security disability income.) My question now is, how can I be sure it is being removed? Do I need to call the bureaus? Order another credit report?

Answer: Your unpaid tax liens may disappear, or they may not.

Starting in July, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion began removing liens and judgments when those records lack enough personally identifying information to ensure that the negative marks wind up on the right people’s reports. Another new requirement is that the records be properly updated, so that accounts that have been paid or resolved aren’t still showing as unpaid.

The error rate for these records was high, leading to many complaints, disputes and lawsuits. The bureaus expect to purge virtually all civil judgments but only about half of the tax liens.

If your liens aren’t purged and you can’t pay them, you may have to wait a while for them to fall off your credit reports. Paid liens are subject to the seven-year limit on how long most negative items can appear on credit reports. Unpaid liens can technically remain indefinitely, although the bureaus typically remove them after 10 years.