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Why Are There Different Types of Credit Reports and Different Credit Scores?

We asked our Facebook fans and Twitter followers to share their most pressing personal finance questions. Credit expert John Ulzheimer, answers below.

Q: Why are my three credit reports different and why are my credit scores different?

I recently received the following question from a consumer via Facebook.

“John, I followed your year end advice and I pulled my three credit reports from annualcreditreport.com.  The problem is I’m more confused now than before I did that. My credit reports are from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.  They’re totally different!  Some of the credit information is the same at all three but for the most part the information isn’t even close, even on the same accounts.  What gives?”

The question is a very good one because it underscores the issue of consumer confusion about credit report inconsistency. A little credit reporting agency background will help to answer the question.

Understanding Different Types of Credit Scores

In the world of credit there are hundreds of different types credit reports, too many to easily track and manage.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that every single credit score is driven solely off the information from your credit reports, and you only have three of those.

The two most widely recognized credit score models are the FICO and VantageScore. Both the FICO and VantageScore credit scoring systems consider the same items, albeit slightly differently.  The following is a complete list of what commonly used credit scores consider, and how much weight it’s given.

Payment History

This is actually better titled as “The Presence or Lack of Derogatory Credit Information.” In the FICO scoring system this category is worth 35% percent of your score points.  In the VantageScore scoring system it’s worth 40%. Any presence of late payments, charge offs, defaults, settlements, foreclosures, repossessions, tax liens, judgments, bankruptcy or collections fall in this category. Avoiding these problems is a must if you expect to max out your credit scores.

Debt Burden

The debt burden category, for some reason, is misinterpreted as only containing one measurement…the infamous credit card debt-to-credit limit ratio. That’s incorrect.  There are several debt related metrics that fall into this category including the number of accounts with balances and the types of accounts with balances. In the FICO scoring system this category is worth 30% percent of your score points.  In the VantageScore scoring system it’s worth 34%. The safe harbor for this category would be to have as little credit card debt as possible.

Time in File

Time in file is a fancy way of saying, “the age of your credit reports.” In the FICO scoring system this category is worth 15% percent of your score points.  In the VantageScore scoring system considered to be highly influential.  This category measures the average age of all of the accounts on your credit reports and the age of the oldest account.

Inquiries

I spend way too much time talking about inquiries especially considering the fact that they’re only worth 10% of the points in your FICO score and no more than 5% in the VantageScore scoring system. Inquiries are a record of a lender pulling your credit report in response to you asking them for something, like an extension of credit or a credit limit increase.

Account Diversity

According to VantageScore Solutions, “Maintain a mix of accounts over time to improve your score.”  This mix includes things like credit cards, auto loans and mortgages.  This category is worth 10% of the points in your FICO score.

Earning and maintaining great credit scores is actually very easy. If you never miss payments, maintain modest credit card debt and avoid excessive credit shopping stints then your credit scores will always be at or above 800. This means you’ll always qualify for the best deals and terms from mainstream lenders.

Accounts

Each credit reporting agency is responsible for compiling and maintaining their own credit file database. Each of the bureaus has around 200,000,000 credit files in their systems. Having said that, there is no guarantee that those 200 million files belong to the same consumers across the Big Three.  Finally, there’s no guarantee that the information housed in your Experian credit file is the same as the information housed in your Equifax credit file or your TransUnion credit file.

Providing information to a credit reporting agency is voluntary.  You cannot force your lenders to report to the credit bureaus.  And, the credit reporting agencies do not have accept information from a lender. There is no language in the Fair Credit Reporting Act that compels anyone to report anything to a credit bureau.

The voluntary nature of credit reporting all but guarantees differences in your credit reports.  And, differences in your credit reports mean different credit scores. The question is whether or not this is a big deal for you, or not.

Your credit reports are not identical

The next time you pull all three of your credit reports, which you should do at least once a year since it’s free, set them side by side and do a line item comparison. You’ll quickly notice that they are not identical.

You may have accounts that show up on one of your credit reports that don’t show up on the other two. Or, you may have accounts that are updated on one of your credit reports at a different time of the month than the other two. And, you likely have inquiries on one credit report that are not on the other two. All of these variances will cause a difference in scores.

Most credit reports are heavily redundant, but even redundant credit reports are not identical. If Bank A reports to the credit bureaus at different times of the month then even though the account is showing up on all three of my credit reports there’s no guarantee the information associated with the account will be the same. Even if Bank A sends their update to all three credit bureaus on the same day there’s no guarantee the credit bureaus will all update their files at the same time.  Remember, they’re competitors.

Where you may find some data inconsistencies is from smaller lenders and credit unions.  Some smaller lenders choose to not have accounts with all three of the credit reporting agencies. And, without a relationship with a credit bureau, the lender is not going to be able to report information to them.

When it comes to public records, bankruptcies will tend to find their way to all three of your credit reports.  However, when it comes to tax liens and judgments it’s been my (non-personal) experience that there is considerable inconsistency between the credit bureaus. This means your judgment or tax lien may show up on only one of your three reports.

Public records are not reported to the credit bureaus like a bank loan or a credit card.  The credit bureau proactively goes to courthouses and collects public record information. This can be done through PACER or other public record gathering services.

You can take advantage of data differences best by having a solid understanding of not only what’s on your reports but also how your credit reports score. For example, if you know your Equifax credit report is reporting a tax lien that’s not being reported on your Experian or TransUnion credit reports you may have a lower score at Equifax because of the negative item.  In a situation like that, it might benefit you to apply for credit with lenders that are not going to pull your Equifax credit report.  How will you know which report they’ll pull?  Ask them…it’s not national security.

Tons of Scoring Models

There are well over 50 different credit scoring models commercially available and in use by lenders today. And, every single one of those scoring models is different and will therefore yield a different score. So, even if you had identical credit reports, which you don’t, the differences in the scoring models would result in a different score.

FICO scores, VantageScore credit scores, the Experian National Risk Model, the Equifax Risk Score…the list goes on and on. And while these are all different brands of scores, meaning they’re all built by different companies, they’re all designed to do the same thing—which is to predict the risk of a lender extending credit to a borrower.

The companies that built these more commonly used scoring models do not collaborate on the development. They are like Pepsi and Coke—same industry but competitors. As such, you should never expect their scoring models to be the same.

Different Score Ranges

FICO scores have a published score range of 300 to 850, although some varieties of FICO scores range from 150-950. The most current version of the VantageScore credit score ranges from 300 to 850, but older versions range from 501 to 990. The Experian National Risk Model ranges from 360 to 840. Again, a different scoring range is going to lead to variances in scores.

Should You Be Concerned?

Despite the fact that the credit scoring market is a full plate, you should not be overly concerned. You shouldn’t be concerned, primarily, because there’s nothing you can do about it and worrying about 50+ scores is a waste of your time. Every single one of your credit scores is based solely on information from your three credit reports, and nothing else. It’s much easier to manage three credit reports than it is to manage 3 different credit scores, or more!

In some cases the differences in your scores will be significant. This, again, isn’t problematic. Lenders don’t see all 50+ of your scores so the only one who is going to know that they’re different is you.

Variance across score types is to be expected, even on the same credit report. For example, if your Experian National Risk Score is 625 you should not expect your VantageScore credit score to also be 625. First off, you’re comparing two different scoring models with two different scoring formulas. Second, the scores aren’t scaled the same (300-850 versus 360-840).

What they will be is directionally similar, meaning a good credit report should always yield a good credit score regardless of the score type. Conversely, a poor credit report should always yield a poor credit score regardless of the score type. Point being, you shouldn’t have a credit report that has a FICO score of 825 and a VantageScore credit score of 585.

With so many different credit reports out there, how do you know where one ends and the other begins? Despite being calculated differently, they do all have one thing in common: a three-digit scale.

1.03.13 ScoreRangesFinal

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3 responses to “Why Are There Different Types of Credit Reports and Different Credit Scores?”

  1. Julia S. Webb says:

    I’m slightly confused on the different types of credit scores. How many types of credit scores are there?

  2. Maya R. Davis says:

    My credit scores are different on three different websites. What are the factors that make my credit score so different? Is there a particular algorithm to score my consumer data?

  3. Amy J. Olsen says:

    Does the higher score mean a better credit score? What do different credit scores mean? I am in the process of building a credit history. Will this affect my credit score?

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