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What is a credit score?

The score has made it easier for many people to get credit, Kurilko says.

Before, it was up to individual lending institutions to come up with their own criteria, he says. "They would hedge their risk and tend to go conservatively. It's opened up lending to a lot more people."

Consumers' rights

Until recently, many Americans didn't even know this number existed because it was a closely guarded secret in the lending industry. In fact, lenders were prohibited from telling borrowers their credit score. The line of reasoning: The number was the result of analyzing complex financial data that the layperson would have difficulty understanding. Plus, if people knew their score (according to the industry mindset at the time), they might be able to change their behavior to manipulate the score and throw off the whole model, rendering it useless.

All that changed a few years ago, when consumers began finding out about the score and demanding to see it. In an unprecedented move in 2000, online lender E-Loan offered to give consumers their scores for free, with information explaining how the score is calculated and how they might improve it. Fair Isaac responded by cutting E-Loan off from its source of credit reports, effectively crippling its ability to lend money. E-Loan stopped giving away credit scores.

Public outcry on the possibility of people being denied credit based on bad information in credit reports led to several pieces of legislation -- and a much more open attitude about credit scores.

Fast forward to current day: Not only can consumers buy their score online from any number of sources, but they are now entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. To find out how to order your free credit report, read " Checking your credit report."

Just what goes into the score? Everything in your credit report, with different kinds of information carrying differing weights, says Fair Isaac consumer affairs manager Craig Watts.

5 factors of credit score
  1. How you pay your bills (35 percent of the score).
  2. Amount of money you owe and the amount of available credit (30 percent).
  3. Length of credit history (15 percent).
  4. Mix of credit (10 percent).
  5. New credit applications (10 percent).

1. How you pay your bills (35 percent of the score)

The most important factor is how you've paid your bills in the past, placing the most emphasis on recent activity. Paying all your bills on time is good. Paying them late on a consistent basis is bad. Having accounts that were sent to collections is worse. Declaring bankruptcy is worst.

2. Amount of money you owe and the amount of available credit (30 percent)

The second most important area is your outstanding debt -- how much money you owe on credit cards, car loans, mortgages, home equity lines, etc. Also considered is the total amount of credit you have available. If you have 10 credit cards that each have $10,000 credit limits, that's $100,000 of available credit. Statistically, people who have a lot of credit available tend to use it, which makes them a less attractive credit risk.

"Carrying a lot of debt doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a lower score," Watts says. "It doesn't hurt as much as carrying close to the maximum. People who consistently max out their balances are perceived as riskier. People who never use their credit don't have a track history. People with the highest scores use credit sparingly and keep their balances low."


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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