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F-words foul up the process of getting a FICO score

Summary

A reader may be lost in a sea of acronyms when he confuses the Freedom of Information Act with FCRA, FACTA and FICO.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Credit Score Report,
I’ve been told that you can use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain your FICO score because it is your info that is being held and used against you. Is this true? If not, it should be! — Steve

 

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Hey Steve,
Too many f-words may have fouled up your understanding of the process of getting a FICO score.

The f-words I’m referring to aren’t particularly rude, but they can be confusing: It’s not the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that offers access to your FICO scores, but rather the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA), which amended the FCRA in 2003. Experts agree that the problem could be all those acronyms. “The reader may be thinking of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA,” says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston. It’s the FCRA that offers access to your FICO scores, although not for free. “Under the FCRA, you have the right to get a credit score, but you need to pay for it. Also, you don’t have a right to your FICO scores specifically,” Wu says.

The Freedom of Information Act, meanwhile, gives the public greater access to data held by federal agencies. “FOIA applies only to the government. All of its requirements fall upon government ‘agencies,’ a defined term under the law,” says Steven Katz, spokesman for credit bureau TransUnion. That means credit bureaus — which are also referred to as credit reporting agencies — aren’t covered by FOIA. “Credit reporting companies are private entities, or publicly traded companies, not government agencies (despite being called credit reporting agencies or credit scoring agencies), so the FOIA does not apply to credit reports or credit scores,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education with credit bureau Experian, in an e-mail. Others in the credit reporting industry confirm that fact. “There is nothing in the law that requires credit bureaus to provide a score for no cost,” says Norm Magnuson, spokesman for the Consumer Data Industry Association, the trade group for the bureaus. FICO, creator of the credit score that bears the company’s name, is a publicly traded company rather than a government entity. That means it’s also exempt from the FOIA.

So if you’d like to get a copy of your FICO credit score, you’ll need to try another approach. That’s where the FCRA and FACTA can help. “Consumer reporting, including credit reporting, is governed by the FCRA and the FACT Act, which provide for access to the information maintained by the national credit reporting companies,” Griffin says.

Under those acts, you have the right to get free copies of your credit report from each of the three major U.S. credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — every year and, in turn, purchase your credit scores. “The credit bureau can give you any generic credit score,” Wu says. “So, for example, you can get your FICO score based on your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports, but not your Experian report — you can only get your VantageScore based on your Experian report,” she says, referring to the scoring model developed by the three bureaus. (Experian stopped offering FICO-based scores after a falling out between the two companies in 2009.) The Equifax and TransUnion-based FICO scores are also available for $15.95 each at myFICO.com. You may also be able to request a free FICO score from your bank or credit union.

While you may view those scores as tools lenders can wield against you, the credit reporting industry views them differently. “We tend to think of scores as being a benefit to most consumers because they give access to credit in a timely manner,” the CDIA’s Magnuson says.

As the credit scores most often used by lenders, FICO scores may soon become more readily available. The major Wall Street reform bill, which takes effect in 2011, will further improve access to your credit scores. “Starting sometime next year, the new Dodd-Frank Act will give consumers the right to automatically receive a credit score when a creditor rejects them or makes them pay a higher price for credit. The score will be in the legally required notice that the creditor must provide, and the consumer actually will get the score that the creditor relied upon — for free,” Wu says. “It’s a big improvement, and should help consumers get more information about their FICO scores.”

Good luck!

— Jeremy

See related: Free credit reports: How to get the actual free one, Consumer financial protections at least a year away, Consumers lose access to major credit score, Free FICO scores exist, but aren’t easy to come by, Credit report error? You can go direct to merchant

 

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