People wonder why one credit bureau generates a significantly different credit score from the others. You get one score from a free credit score provider, another from a credit card lender, and still another when you apply for a mortgage.
How can that be when you only have one credit profile?
Scores Vary as Your Credit Report Data Varies
Your credit score is calculated based on your credit report. Your credit report is a compilation of your complete credit history, going back as far as 10 years.
It includes a complete listing of all the loans you held during that time, including when they were opened, the maximum amount owed, the current balance, and the payment history.
It also lists any collection accounts from non-lenders, such as utility and phone services, or previous landlords. A separate section lists public records, including judgments and tax liens.
Reducing complicated information to a single number
That number, or score, represents a summary of your total credit profile. Lenders will start out with your credit score, then drill down into the report itself if the score is not satisfactory or conclusive for their purposes.
Your score is based on your credit report. But since there are three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, you actually have three credit reports.
As a result, you have three credit scores – one from each of the three bureaus. In most cases, your score from each will be at least a little bit different from the others.
Reasons Your Score Can Be So Different
In most cases, your three credit scores will be in a close range, varying by only a few points from one to the other. But there are situations where variations of 50 to 100 points or more can occur.
There are five basic reasons why this happens:
There are many different credit scoring models
FICO alone has more than a dozen different versions. Some are specific to credit cards, others to auto loans, and still more to mortgages.
There’s also VantageScore, in several different versions. Those are primarily educational scores, that are typically issued through free credit score services.
Not all creditors report to all three credit bureaus
Most do report to all three, but there are exceptions. If you have an installment loan that reports only to Experian, your Experian credit score may be very different Equifax and TransUnion.
Delinquencies reported on a loan reported on one credit report, but not the others, is the most common reason why you’ll see wide credit score discrepancies, like 100 points.
Delay in posting of credit account updates
Creditors have different reporting schedules. A lender may report to Experian on the 10th of the month, Equifax on the 15th, and TransUnion on the 20th.
If your credit report is pulled on the 17th, your TransUnion credit report will contain different information from Experian and Equifax, which may result in a noticeably different score.
Differences in credit scoring models
While each of the three credit bureaus uses the same basic scoring model, there are slight variations.
Each may start out using the basic FICO model, but with minor changes.
One credit bureau report may reflect an error that doesn’t show up on the other two. If it’s negative information, that credit report will have a lower credit score.
How to Make Sure Your Scores are Accurate
Because of the reasons cited above, you’ll never achieve complete harmony between all credit scores, or even between all three credit reports. But you can help your cause by making sure the information reported to all three credit bureaus is 100% accurate.
To do this, you’ll need to get a copy of your credit report from each of the three bureaus. Under federal law, you are entitled to receive one copy each year from each of the bureaus – free of charge.
This is easily accomplished through a website known as AnnualCreditReport.com. In fact, it is the only source officially authorized to provide your credit report from all three bureaus. You will need to get a copy of all three credit reports, one each from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
Carefully review each report, studying every entry on each. Make sure that the information appearing on each report is completely accurate. This will at least ensure that all three credit bureaus are working with the same information, and that there are no errors.
If you do identify errors, you’ll need to get that information corrected. In most cases, you’ll have to do this through the creditor that has provided the information.
You should expect to provide documentation that will prove that the information is incorrect. Simply contacting the creditor and disputing the information doesn’t usually work.
Use the following procedures to dispute the errors, and get it corrected with the credit bureaus:
- Gather the documentation that will show the information to be incorrect. This can include copies of canceled checks, creditor statements reflecting payments made, or any other documents supporting your claim.
- Contact the creditor and get specific information as to who you need to contact. You’ll need a name, title, phone number, address and email address. At some point in the process, you may need all that information. Never send your dispute to a general address or email.
- Make sure all contacts are in writing. You’ll need that in case there is any dispute after the fact.
- You can explain the situation on the phone, but be sure to follow up either in writing or by email. This will establish a paper trail, as well as evidence of agreements made.
- If the creditor agrees that the information is reported in error, insist they confirm this in writing. Again, this should be either by mail or by email.
- You must also insist the creditor agrees to report corrected information to all three credit bureaus. If they report the correction to two bureaus, but not the third, the negative information will still work against you. The basic idea is to remove all traces of the error from all three credit reports.
- Allow at least 30 days for the creditor to correct the information with the credit bureaus, then check your credit once again. If the corrected information doesn’t appear on all three reports, you’ll need to follow up with the creditor.
- If the creditor remains uncooperative, you’ll need to supply correspondence from the creditor directly to the credit bureau. This is the reason why you need to get everything in writing throughout the process.
How Your Credit Score is Calculated
Your credit score is made up based on five different criteria:
- Payment history makes up 35% of your score.
- Credit utilization (amounts owed) is 30%. This is the amount you owe on your credit cards, divided by your total credit card limits.
- Length of credit history is 15%.
- New credit is 10%.
- Your credit mix is 10%.
The single best thing you can do for your credit score is to make your payments on time. But right behind it is your credit utilization. The optimal percentage on this is 30%. It means if you have $10,000 in total credit card limits, you should owe no more than $3,000 on them. To the degree that your utilization exceeds 30%, it will negatively impact your credit score.
Length of credit history is the major reason why people who have had credit for many years have higher credit scores than those who are new to credit. It means the credit bureaus have had more time to assess your performance on those loans.
New credit, by contrast, generally works against you. If you have a lot of new credit, and there hasn’t been much time to establish a pay history, it will hurt your score. Generally speaking, the less new credit you have, the better. In addition, applying for new credit generates credit inquiries, which also work against your credit score.
Credit mix is a surprise to most people. But the scoring models give more weight to those who have different credit types. For example, if you have a mortgage, an auto loan, and several credit cards, it has a more positive impact than if you had nothing but credit card accounts. It’s because different loan types demonstrate the ability to manage different types of debt.
As you can see, credit scoring is a complicated affair. That’s why you should never assume you have a single credit score, or that it’s a fixed number.
Not only do you have many different credit scores, but each is in a constant process of updating. As new information becomes available – both good and bad – your scores will change continuously.
Never be surprised if you get different credit scores from different sources. Or even if your score from the same source changes after just a few days.
If your score drops by at least 20 or 30 points, it’s probably a sign to do some investigating. There may be some negative information turning up on one of your credit reports that’s bringing your score down. Deal with immediately, while the information is still brand-new.
But if you see changes of just a few points, you can relax. It’s just the way the credit scoring system works.