Scoring systems create confusion

One thing that definitely befuddles many consumers is the credit scoring system.

And things got a little more confusing when the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion- recently announced they had joined together and created their own branded credit scoring model, which they hope will replace the FICO score now widely used by lenders.

Right after the announcement, my e-mail inbox began filling up with questions from readers about credit scoring. For instance, one reader who has a great score was concerned that the new system developed by the bureaus would hurt his credit ranking.

The FICO credit scoring system, developed by Fair Isaac Corp., rates consumers on a scale of a low of 300 to a high of 850. The VantageScore system created by the credit bureaus uses a scale that ranges from a low of 501 to a high of 990. The bureaus’ version is supposed to approximate a letter-grade system. Scores of 901 to 990 would be the equivalent of an A, 801 to 900 a B, 701 to 800 a C, 601 to 700 a D, and 501 to 600 an F.

“It appears now that someone with a credit score of, say, 800 under the current system, certainly top of the line, since 850 is the current ceiling, would move from a top rating to average under the new system,” the reader wrote.

That’s an incorrect conclusion. The two systems are not being merged.

High scores under the FICO model remain high. It is more likely that if you have credit scores in the 800s under FICO, you’ll score in the 900s with the VantageScore system, assuming the bureaus use the same or similar factors to determine creditworthiness.

The announcement about VantageScore also gave folks a chance to vent about errors in their credit files.

“Suppose a credit bureau reports information that is incorrect. Why wouldn’t this be legally actionable? Why can’t I sue?”

Actually you can. Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the credit bureaus and businesses that supply them with data are obligated to correct inaccurate information. The act is supposed to ensure the accuracy of information contained in your credit files maintained by the credit bureaus.

In practice, correcting errors on your credit report can be maddening.

The problem is that in attempting to verify information, the bureaus simply go back to the source. And guess what the creditors often do? They simply confirm the incorrect information in their databases.

If you find an error in any of your credit reports, the Federal Trade Commission says you should write to each agency requesting a deletion or correction. Your letter should clearly identify each item in your report that you dispute. You should also enclose a copy of your report with the items in question circled. Include copies (not originals) of documents that support your position. And finally, send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can prove that the credit bureau received the information. Also, keep records of everything and everyone you talk to.

But before you do all that, contact the creditor supplying the incorrect data. You have to attack the erroneous information at the source. If you can clear it up with your creditor first, you have a better chance that the error won’t be transmitted again.

The law requires credit agencies to investigate disputed information and correct inaccuracies within 30 days of hearing from a consumer.

If you don’t get satisfactory action from the credit bureau or creditor, you have at least two recourses:

* You can complain to the FTC. Unfortunately, the commission doesn’t get involved in resolving individual consumer problems. However, your complaint might lead to some law enforcement action.

* You can file a lawsuit in state or federal court. In some cases, you may have more rights under state law. For more information, contact your state or local consumer protection agency or your state attorney general’s office.

These types of cases are not easy to win, but if you have an egregious error, go for it. To find a lawyer, try the National Association of Consumer Advocates. Their Web site, www.naca.net, lists consumer lawyers by state. When searching, click on the links for “View Details” and look for an attorney with experience handling Fair Credit Reporting Act cases.

Finally, those of you with great credit scores of 720 or higher need to stop obsessing. You don’t need a perfect score to get the best credit offers.

For example, one reader wrote: “I have a FICO score of 780 with $6,000 in a savings account and a credit card balance in the same amount on one credit card. If I withdraw all the funds I have in my savings and pay off the one remaining credit card balance, would this measurably improve my FICO score? Or, given my current high score, would it not be worth the effort?”

Having $6,000 outstanding on a credit card is not good. But clearly, having that much revolving debt is not damaging this person’s credit standing.

I wouldn’t deplete my savings to pay off that balance, especially if it was all the emergency cash I had.

Certainly you want to pay down debt, but not at the risk of being cash poor.

Whatever credit scoring systems lenders use, continue to question what you don’t understand. After all, your scores directly translate into real dollars.

Washington Post Writers Group

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