The Credit Score You're Buying Probably Isn't Worth It

NEW YORK ( — Credit scores are how lenders and even some insurers and employers judge consumers. For a number that carries such influence, there are many gray areas that can create problems and confusion for consumers.

The July issue of Consumer Reports calls into question the value of consumers buying their credit scores. The reason? The FICO scores that millions of consumers buy each year for $20 are not the scores that car dealers, auto-finance companies and mortgage lenders use. The magazine reviewed the material that Fair Isaac provided to lenders and concluded that the scores consumers buy are inferior.

Secrecy adds to the mystery and frustration surrounding credit scores that lenders actually use. Consumer Reports says that VantageScore is used by 1,300 lenders, but there are various versions that can give very different scores. Fair Isaac sells 49 different FICO scores to lenders, but only two of these to consumers.

While consumers know little about credit reporting agencies, these agencies know much more about consumers than the number of credit cards you have or how much you owe on your mortgage. You may be surprised at the personal information collected by credit agencies and how many agencies are tracking your financial behavior. TransUnion, Experian and Equifax are the biggest nationwide credit reporting agencies, but there are many smaller specialty agencies that focus on specific industries. They collect and sell your information, providing reports that help determine whether you get credit, insurance and other financial services.

In November, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a list of 40 specialty reporting agencies. The CFPB warned these specialty credit reporting agencies that they may be violating federal law by not providing consumers with easy access to credit reports.