FORTUNE -- Earlier this week, FICO, the mother of all credit scores used by most U.S. lenders, announced it would start giving some consumers their credit scores for free.
It's a welcome move for anyone eager to keep up with the status of their financial health, but the nation's three major credit bureaus sell their own credit scores, and they haven't signaled they will follow FICO. All this makes it hard not to wonder why we even pay for our credit scores in the first place?
Few Americans actually know their score. True the reason could be pure laziness, but unless you make the effort to purchase your score, it isn't something you'll see on your credit card statement or monthly mortgage bill (although it really should be).
A FICO credit score, in particular, is a key measure lenders use to decide whether to approve or reject borrowers for a loan. It's like a grade given based on your credit report, which chronicles all kinds of information about your credit payment history. The credit score also determines how likely it is they'll repay their loans. More than that, it gives borrowers an idea whether lenders are giving them a fair rate.
On Monday, FICO started offering free credit scores to credit-card holders of two companies: Barclaycard US, a unit of Barclays (BCS), and First Bankcard, the credit business of First National Bank of Omaha. FICO sells its scores to banks and lenders, and they are working to give more permission to share the data with their customers. Previously, consumers who wanted to see their scores typically had to buy them through FICO's website for $16.95 or sign up for a free 10-day trial subscription to its monthly score-monitoring services.
FICO's change goes beyond what financial regulators have mandated from credit bureaus. Under the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, consumers have the right to get a copy of their credit score if they're turned down for a loan, or if they're approved but fail to get the best available interest rate. Consumers still have to pay for their credit score if they go directly to myFICO.com, but regardless of whether they take out a loan, they can get their score for free so long as they're customers of any participating lender.
"Since the financial crisis, consumers have recognized they need to be more financially savvy," says Anthony Sprauve, FICO's senior consumer credit specialist. "With your FICO score you're able to understand where you fall in the spectrum of consumers."
Other bureaus haven't signaled they will follow. TransUnion, Equifax (EFX) and Experian (EXPGF) are currently required to give consumers a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months. That, however, is different from their credit scores, which they charge consumers for (In March, Experian announced all Wells Fargo (WFC) customers would be treated to its VantageScore for free, but it's not immediately clear if that program will continue into 2014). This gets to be really confusing, but these scores are considered "educational scores" used more as a guide for consumers; they're different from FICO's credit score most widely used by lenders.
Nonetheless, consumer advocates say all credit scores should be available to consumers.
"You can get your credit report for free once a year -- that right should also be applied to your credit score," says Persis Yu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
After all, some credit reports have errors, and even if the mistakes are corrected, it doesn't always lead to a meaningful increase in borrowers' credit scores. And wouldn't everyone want to know if and how lenders are judging us correctly?
Even if Americans start creating new households, there are a lot of other factors to weigh before assuming the housing market will improve. By Joshua SteinerMay 11, 2011 1:30 PM ET
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