Credit scores are available from more sources than ever these days. Banks and other financial institutions offer them. Credit card issuers offer them, and each of the three credit reporting agencies does so as well. A number of credit-related websites are offering free peeks at your credit score too. However, with so many different sources of scores available, it’s quite prudent to wonder: Is that free credit score accurate?

“Free” Isn’t Always Free

One of the truths about the internet is whenever a site appears to be offering you a service at no charge, its ultimate product is your personal information. Signing up for “free” credit reports and free credit scores on most of those sites require you to submit a host of personally identifiable information and give them the right to sell it in exchange for providing you with your credit score.

The other way these sites can make money is requiring you to enroll in credit tracking services. While they are technically providing you with your score for “free” in that instance, they’re making it up with the subscription fees they charge you on the back end.

Why Credit Scores Can Vary

Rocker Sammy Hagar once had a hit single called “There’s Only One Way to Rock.” While the notion admittedly made for a great song, the claim was somewhat dubious at best. Moreover, when it comes to credit scores, there are a number of different ways to arrive at them as well — all of which can render a different result.

Even the highly vaunted FICO score has a number of different versions, each of which can produce a different result. Moreover, FICO regularly adjusts its scoring models in an effort to make them as predictive as possible. As a result, some lenders might be using an older FICO model, as they have to pay a fee to update whenever FICO changes.

Another consideration is that each of the three credit reporting bureaus can have different information on file. Experian and Equifax might have all of your data, while TransUnion doesn’t because one of your creditors doesn’t report to them, whether you’ve paid all of your debts as agreed, used debt relief or taken a consolidation loan. Thus, your Experian and Equifax scores could be 700 while your TransUnion score might be a 688.

Moreover, different types of lenders use different scoring models to make their final determinations. You might see one score when applying for a mortgage and a different number altogether when you’ve applied for a car loan.

Which Score Is Most Accurate?

Despite the fact they tinker with their algorithm, or actually because they tinker with their algorithm, the FICO score is closest to being universally accurate.

The good news is most credit card companies and banks rely upon that scoring model for the data they provide at no charge. American Express, Bank of America, Barclaycard, Chase, Citibank, Discover and Wells Fargo are among the institutions using FICO to provide this service — typically to attract new business.

However, you also need to be aware that a score reported in April can supersede a score you got in February. Credit scores are malleable data that respond to changes in your credit reports, which typically get updated on a monthly basis.

So, is that free credit score accurate? The best way to answer that question is to ask the provider where their data originated. If it’s a current FICO score, odds are the accuracy is good — for the most part. You might want to seek a secondary source if it’s derived from some other algorithm.

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