Kate Hao founder and president of Happy Mango Inc., a tech provider to financial institutions that help underserved populations build their credit.
With catchy names like Credit Sesame, myFICO and Credit Karma, credit score apps are pitched as tools to help you achieve financial responsibility. But there are a few things you should know…
You don’t have one credit score. Your score is not the same at all three major credit-reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian). Even within a single agency, your credit score can look different depending on the parameters used to pull the data. Often, free credit apps provide a single score from one of the agencies, and it may bear little resemblance to the score that gets pulled up by a loan officer when you apply for credit. A difference of 20 points or so is reasonable, but sometimes the discrepancy can be as wide as 80 or 100 points.
There usually are costs. Some apps, such as myFICO, are up front about charging a monthly fee of $20 for the basic package and $40 for a more robust bundle. A basic bundle includes one bureau’s score, while a premier package includes all three scores as well as identity monitoring. Others purport to be free but provide a single bare-bones score unless you upgrade. Credit Karma doesn’t bill you, but you “pay” for the service by viewing ads.
You’re entitled to all three agencies’ reports for free. Every consumer can request his/her credit report annually from each of the agencies without being charged. Plus, many banks, including Wells Fargo and Chase, provide a free credit score with your monthly statement.
Apps sometimes discourage financial responsibility. Some apps tempt vulnerable consumers to take on unsecured debt.
There are better options. Look for free credit score counseling services or financial empowerment centers in your area. These nonprofit entities will work with you and can repeatedly pull your credit scores from all three agencies at no charge. And they’ll help you create a budget and deal with financial emergencies to put you in a better position for when you have to borrow. You can search for financial empowerment centers at FECPublic.org, or locate a reputable nonprofit credit counselor at the website of the National Foundation for Credit Counse