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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Access to credit scores needs to be expanded

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON Why in the world would Congress provide some consumers free access to credit scores, but not others?

This could happen under an amendment that allows free access to people whose credit scores were used to deny them credit or a job. As significant as this is, what about the rest of us?

The amendment, included as part of the Wall Street financial reform bill recently passed in the Senate, isn't far-reaching enough. There's still time to fix this during the reconciliation process, but you should let your congressman and senators know that when it comes to something as important as credit scores, half a loaf isn't enough.

I do hope you know there's a difference between your credit report and credit score. Your report contains a history of your credit usage, including how much you've borrowed and how well you've paid your bills.

Your credit score is calculated using information in your credit report. The resulting three-digit number is used to determine whether you are a good credit risk.

The effort to give consumers access to both their reports and scores has a long history. Back in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, was passed to ensure a certain level of fairness, accuracy and privacy of the personal credit information collected by credit reporting agencies.

It's probably hard to believe now, but there was a time when consumers didn't have a right to access the information collected on them and used by lenders, insurers and even employers. Once the files were open, if you wanted to routinely see your credit reports, you had to pay for them.

It would take 33 years until Congress amended FCRA to include the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, which gave people the right to receive free annual reports from the three major credit bureaus. The 2003 amendment also gave people the right to request their credit scores, including an explanation of the factors that went into calculating the score.

But the score wouldn't be free. The law said people could be charged a "reasonable" fee. You can get a credit score for about $8.

When Congress required the bureaus Equifax, TransUnion and Experian to provide free annual reports, lawmakers should have also mandated the same free access to credit scores. Having your credit report without the score is just half the story.

What's in your credit report and the credit score generated by that information has a major impact on what you pay for credit, the job you may get or the insurance rates you're assigned.

There are a number of different credit-scoring models, but the one most lenders use is the FICO credit risk score created by San Rafael, Calif.-based Fair Isaac. The FICO score ranges from a low 300 to a high of 850. The higher your score, the more favorable terms you can get for loans and such.

"I'm very pleased that the bill includes my credit score amendment, which is going to help arm consumers with the information they need to take control of their own financial health," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who proposed the Fair Access to Credit Scores Act of 2010.

Well, it's going to arm some people. To be truly significant, the final bill needs to give free access to credit scores for everyone, regardless of any action taken by a creditor or company. The earlier people have this information, the more likely they can make changes to better their score.

And if by some chance a better provision is passed, please take advantage of the free access. Most Americans in fact, two-thirds haven't ordered a copy of their credit report in the past year, according to a recent survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

You can get your report by going to www.annual creditreport.com.

"So many chase their score without paying adequate attention to the credit report," said Gail Cunningham, vice president of public relations for NFCC.

At a time when we are constantly telling folks they need to handle their finances better, Congress should push harder to give people easy access to all the information they need.

Michelle Singletary writes for the Washington Post. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com.