What Consumers Don’t Know About Credit Scores
What Consumers Don’t Know About Credit Scores
Consumer Federation of America national survey identifies big gaps in knowledge

Americans, by and large, are fairly savvy about the use of credit scores and credit reports. For example nearly three-quarters (72 percent) know that the three main credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—provide the information on which credit scores are based. And the same proportion are aware that checking the accuracy of one’s credit reports of the three credit bureaus is “very important.” 

Additionally, most everyone knows that high balances on credit cards (87 percent), personal bankruptcy (88 percent), and missed payments on a loan (92 percent) are detrimental to one’s credit score.

This data comes from a national telephone survey conducted by ORC International April 17-19, using a representative sample of 1004 adult Americans. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions, LLC, were joint sponsors of the survey.

Credit Scores Measure Risk

While Americans know a lot about credit reports and credit scores, researchers found significant shortcomings in consumer understanding. 

Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) said incorrectly that age was a factor in determining credit scores, and 44 percent believed marital status was a factor.

The majority of consumers (58 percent) do not understand that a credit score measures risk to a lender: determining the likelihood that an individual will pay back a loan, and make payments in a timely manner. It does not measure your financial resources to pay back the loan, or the amount of your consumer debt, although these factors can influence risk. Also, the credit score is not a measure of your knowledge or attitude toward consumer credit as many believe.

Credit Repair Companies

A large proportion, 38 percent, mistakenly believe that credit repair companies are always or usually helpful in correcting errors and taking other measures to improve one’s credit score. These companies at best only occasionally improve one’s credit score. “Credit repair companies often overpromise, charge high prices and perform services that consumers could do themselves by just contacting the lender and the credit bureaus,” says the analysis of the survey.

The survey also found that only half of consumers (50 percent) know that lenders must inform borrowers of the credit score used in a lending decision for a mortgage loan application, when a consumer loan is rejected, or disclose if the lowest available interest rate is not an option on a consumer or mortgage loan.

Loan Costs Increase for Low Scores

Americans greatly underestimate how much credit scores affect the amount one ends up paying for a loan. The survey asked how much more would a person with a low credit score pay than someone with a high credit score on a $20,000, 60-month auto loan. Only 16 percent gave the right answer of over $5,000. Some 77 percent gave lesser dollar estimates. 

Most people know that one can request one free copy of your credit report (though not your score) every 12 months from each of the 3 major credit bureaus. Free copies of your credit reports can easily be obtained through www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents had obtained a free copy of their credit report within the past year. One third (33 percent) said that they had never obtained a copy.

Almost three-fourths (74 percent) knew the federal agency most suitable to help resolve a dispute about your credit report or credit score that you are having with a credit bureau or lender is the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Younger Adults Know Less

Those born 1980 to 1996, whom the CFA press release calls the “millennials,” were found to be less knowledgeable about credit than other adults. The survey analysis states, “Under half (47%) of millennials, in contrast to over 60 percent of those 45-64 years of age, know that age is not a factor used in calculating credit scores.”

On other measures as well, the 18-34 year-olds were not as clear in their understanding of credit as older adults.

“An important reason for their lower knowledge appears to be that millennials are much less likely than other adult Americans to have ever obtained the free credit reports (49 percent vs. 74 percent) on which their credit scores are based,” states the press release.

The relative lack of knowledge of millennials about credit scores is a concern, said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck at the May 12th teleconference. “These 18 to 34 years of age are the age group most likely to be securing credit cards, auto loans, obtaining utility services, and renting for the first time.” Their credit scores are often used to determine access to, and pricing of these services, he said.

Raising a Low Score

It’s harder to raise one’s credit score than to lower it, but it is possible. First, consistently make loan payments on time. Second, keep balances of credit cards under 25 percent of the limit. Third, don’t open many new credit card accounts at the same time. Fifty-eight percent of Americans checked all three items. 

A fourth item was mentioned at the press release: scores are raised by paying down debt rather than moving it around.

Quiz: Self-Education

CFA and VantageScore Solutions encourage individuals to take their free 20-question quiz at www.CreditScoreQuiz.org. This website states, “The quiz results indicate that many Americans could improve their credit score knowledge and ability to manage their scores.” No personal data is corrected.

The Consumer Federation of America states it is a nonprofit association of more than 250 consumer groups. It advances consumer interests through research, education and advocacy.

VantageScore Solutions is a joint enterprise of the three national credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, that started in 2006 with its own credit scoring model solution in competition with the FICO score, which most lenders use now. The firm evaluates various factors to optimize a model for accurate and consistent scoring of credit risk of borrowers.

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