There is a lot of misinformation in the free credit score industry. Shady sites have been known to employ bait-and-switch tactics that give you a legitimate credit score... and a monthly fee if you don't jump through subscription cancellation hoops.
While those scams have largely gone by the wayside, getting your free credit report and score can still seem daunting. Here are five sites we trust, plus ways to protect yourself after breaches like the Equifax hack.
Credit Report vs. Credit Score
First, you must understand the difference between a credit score and a credit report. There are three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. The bureaus each keep a record of the way you use credit — these dossiers are your credit reports. How do those bureaus get that info? They gather data from banks, credit card companies, and public records.
Your credit score is basically a summary of your credit report from one of these bureaus in numerical form. That gives your potential mortgage company or cell phone provider a quick way to determine your creditworthiness. The number is based on major factors such as payment history, bad marks on your credit report, the length of your credit history, the number of accounts held, and credit utilization.
What's Up With Different Credit Scores?
Credit scores have taken on a life of their own. Even the major credit bureaus don't stick to a single score. They provide different scores for different situations — scores that can change, depending on what they're trying to convey.
FICO is the most well-known and widely used score. All scoring models apply the same basic information, they just weight things a bit differently. This can lead to slight differences between scores. It's usually just a few points, but the range could be closer to 30.
The Best Places to Get Your Free Credit Score
There's been a recent trend of companies offering access to your credit score for free in order to win your business. Most of these companies provide reputable, widely used scores. A few, however, stand above the rest in terms of easy use and universal availability. Since your bank might not be offering you free access, here are four great sites to visit:
Discover Credit Scorecard
Although Discover runs this site, it's available to you even if you don't have an account with the company. Credit Scorecard provides your FICO Score based on data from Experian.
This site changed the credit score game when it launched in 2007. Credit Karma gives you two scores side by side, one from TransUnion and the other from Equifax. It also has great tools to help you understand how to improve your credit score — and why your score is what it is in the first place.
Credit Sesame followed Credit Karma down the path of providing reputable, free credit scores in 2010. The score it provides is from TransUnion, and the site has good tools to help you with your credit, as well.
Capital One CreditWise
Capital One offers you a free look at your TransUnion VantageScore. Fortunately, you don't need to have an account with the bank/credit card provider to sign up. CreditWise has a credit score simulator, too, which can help you run numbers on how specific credit moves will impact your overall score. It'll also pitch you certain relevant products... like credit cards.
How to Get Your Free Credit Report
Looking for freebies? There's really just one place online to get your credit report for free. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only website that provides that credit information, per federal law, at no cost. Don't buy what anyone else is selling. You can get your credit report from each of the three major bureaus once per year, and it'll cost you nothing.
A good strategy for checking your credit is to pull a single report from a different bureau every four months. That way, you'll have an update on what your credit reports look like more frequently. If you pull all three on the same day, you'll have to wait a full year to check again.
Will Checking Your Score Hurt Your Credit?
The free inquiries that you'll be doing through the websites listed above are considered "soft inquiries." A soft credit check won't affect your score. "Hard inquiries" are usually initiated by mortgage lenders and credit card issuers. Those types of inquiries will ding your score, but the effect is small.
What to Do if There's a Hack
In 2017, a major hack at Equifax left the private information of nearly 148 million people vulnerable. The compromised information included Social Security numbers, addresses, driver's license numbers, and birth dates.
SEE ALSO: 8 Easy Ways to Boost Your Credit Score
It's tough to think about, but you should be prepared if such a data breach were to happen again. Check out the tips below on how to protect yourself if your information is exposed.
- Consider a credit freeze. This is a good way to ensure no new accounts are opened. However, because a credit freeze works by restricting access to your records, you won't be able to open a new account until you lift the freeze. You can do so by inputting a password or PIN provided by the respective credit bureau.
- Review your credit reports. If it's a major breach, you'll want to go ahead and pull from all three major bureaus. See some suspicious activity? Learn about actions to take at IdentityTheft.gov.
- Carefully check your statements. Even if there's no suspicious activity, you should monitor your accounts to ensure nothing pops up. Make sure you recognize every transaction on your credit card statements.
- Take other protective measures. File your taxes early to keep your information from being used by the wrong people. Additionally, employ 2-step authentication and strong passwords for your online accounts.
- Set up alerts. Use one of the free credit-monitoring services above to set up alerts. This is one more added layer of protection that should bring you peace of mind.
Readers, where do you go to see your credit score? Are there other free places to check your credit that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!