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How to get a free credit score

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It's never been easier to get a free credit score.

While getting a free score has never been a right, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2014 encouraged credit card companies to begin providing free credit scores to their customers. Many big banks have begun to do so.

Credit-scoring giant FICO also recently announced that it would provide free versions of its score to consumers in financial trouble through places such as qualified nonprofit credit counselors.

And there are numerous websites that help people check their credit -- Bankrate included. You can see your credit report and credit score for free at myBankrate.

Finally, rules under the Dodd-Frank Act stipulated that creditors must disclose the credit score used to make a lending decision, along with information related to the score, if a consumer is denied or offered terms that are less than the best.

This includes the range of possible credit scores under the model, four or five key factors that hurt the score, the date the score was created and the credit reporting agency that provided it.

Different credit scores

Know this, though: There's not just one credit score. Although the most widely used score is the FICO score, another credit score could show up on your disclosure and the lender doesn't need to identify the brand.

But there may be ways to decipher the score's origin. If the range is between 300 and 850, it could be a FICO score. Still, it could be a specific FICO score, such as one designed for credit card issuers, and not the one available on myFICO.com. If the range is 501 to 990, it's a VantageScore, which was developed by the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Some lenders may use a newer VantageScore model, which now offers the same range as the FICO.

The free credit score likely will come from one of the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax or TransUnion, but the company won't be able to discuss your credit score.

"We are the source of the credit report used to calculate the score. But we're not the source of the credit score itself," says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian.

Know your risk factors

The agencies won't be able to tell you how much a missed payment deducts from your score or even which trade line is valued the most in the score. But what they can do is go over your credit report and make sure there are no mistakes. They can also help you understand the factors that affect your score, which are included in the disclosure notice.

"It seems like a contrary message," says Griffin, "but consumers shouldn't worry so much about the number, but instead focus on the risk factors. That's what is going to improve their scores."

Risk factors include a history of late payments or a high credit utilization ratio, which is the total amount of revolving credit someone uses in a month compared with the amount of credit they have available.

The most heartening part of a free credit score disclosure: Your number is not fixed. Hence, the date on the disclosure notice, which indicates when the score was calculated.

So, if you pay down debt or bump against a credit limit, your credit score could be higher or lower the next time it is pulled. Your score can change as often as the information in your credit report does.

"We want consumers to use the information as a tool rather than a source of frustration," says Griffin.

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