Credit reports and credit scores sound like they might be the same thing, but they're very different.
What is a credit report?
Credit reports sum up your credit history: how much you owe, how much and when you've paid off debt, whether you've filed for bankruptcy, and sometimes even whether you've been sued or arrested. These reports are generally compiled, and continually updated, by the three major credit-reporting agencies, also known as credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — although there are several smaller credit-reporting agencies.
Potential lenders, landlords and sometimes potential employers will buy one or more of your credit reports from credit-reporting agencies to help assess whether or not to take you on as a borrower, tenant or employee.
You can get a free copy of your Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit reports once per year through annualcreditreport.com, but those free reports do not include credit scores. Many identity-protection services let you see your credit reports monthly or quarterly, and often let you see some credit scores as well.
What is a credit score?
Credit scores are numbers — generally running from 300 to 850 — that gauge your creditworthiness, i.e., how likely you are to pay your debts on time. Basically, a credit score tries to quantify the amount of risk involved in lending you money.
Credit reports play a large role in calculating credit scores, but other factors may matter; the exact models used to create credit scores are trade secrets. Think of a credit report as a look back at your financial past, and a credit score as an attempt to predict your financial future.
The best-known credit-score model is the generic FICO score, which is by far the most important one and is itself just one of dozens of different credit scores the Fair Isaac Corporation calculates.
Financial institutions will often buy a FICO score that uses data from one of the credit-reporting agencies to help decide whether or not to lend you money. Each credit report may yield a slightly different FICO score, and those FICO scores may be different from the FICO scores you are able to see.
If you buy a credit report yourself, it may include a corresponding FICO score. Some credit-card companies and banks also let you see a FICO score periodically. Many major banks calculate their own credit scores, using their own formulas, for internal use.
Each of the three major credit-reporting agencies will often let you see the FICO credit score based on its own data on its website. But to get a fuller picture, you'd want to see all three of your FICO scores using the credit reports from all three agencies.
In 2006, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion jointly created a rival credit-score model called VantageScore. Like the FICO score, VantageScore is a "real" credit score sold to potential lenders, although it has a much smaller market share.
You'll sometimes see a VantageScore 3.0 or VantageScore 4.0 score (the two use different algorithms) offered by an identity-protection service instead of a FICO score. The FICO score based on a credit report would probably be a bit different from the VantageScore based on the same credit report.
'Educational' credit scores
Many companies have created "educational" credit scores that offer consumers an indication of whether their real FICO scores or VantageScores are going up or down. These determinations are sometimes derided as "FAKO" scores, as they do not use the same formulas as VantageScore or FICO, but they would respond in broadly the same way to changes in your credit history.
Educational scores include the CreditXpert score, Experian's Plus Score, Equifax's Credit Score & Report, and TransUnion's CreditVision New Account Score. But the FICO score, and to a lesser degree the VantageScore, are still the only ones that really count.
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Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.