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Whether through ads or our own experiences dealing with banks and other lenders, Canadians are frequently reminded of the power of a single number, a credit score, in determining their financial options.
That slightly mysterious number can determine whether you’re able to secure a loan and how much extra it will cost to pay it back.
It can be the difference between having a credit card with a manageable interest rate or one that keeps you drowning in debt.
Not surprisingly, many Canadians want to know their score, and there are several web-based services that offer to provide it.
But a Marketplace investigation has found that the same consumer is likely to get significantly different credit scores from different websites — and chances are none of those scores actually matches the one lenders consult when deciding your financial fate.
‘That’s so strange’
We had three Canadians check their credit scores using four different services: Credit Karma and Borrowell, which are both free; and Equifax and TransUnion, which charge about $20 a month for credit monitoring, a plan that includes access to your credit score.
One of the participants was Raman Agarwal, a 58-year-old small business owner from Ottawa, who says he pays his bills on time and has little debt.
Canadian company Borrowell’s site said he had a “below average” credit score of 637. On Credit Karma, his score of 762 was labelled “very good.”
As for the paid sites, Equifax provided a “good” score of 684, while TransUnion said his 686 score was “poor.”
Agarwal was surprised by the inconsistent results.
“That’s so strange, because the scoring should be based on the same principles,” he said. “I don’t know why there’s a confusion like that.”
The other two participants also each received four different scores from the four different services. The largest gap between two scores for the same participant was 125 points.
The free websites, Borrowell and Credit Karma, purchase the scores they provide to consumers from Equifax and TransUnion, respectively, yet all four companies share a different score with a different proprietary name.
Credit scores are calculated based on many factors, including payment history; credit utilization, which is how much of a loan you owe versus how much you have available to you; money owing; how long you’ve been borrowing; and the types of credit you have. But these factors can be weighted differently depending on the credit bureau or lender, resulting in different scores.
So, which credit score is giving Agarwal the clearest picture of his credit standing?
Marketplace learned that none of the scores the four websites provide is necessarily the same as the one lenders are most likely to use when determining Agarwal’s creditworthiness.
We spoke with multiple lenders in the financial, automotive and mortgage sectors, who all said they would not accept any of the scores our participants received from the four websites.
“So, we don’t know what these scores represent,” said Vince Gaetano, principal broker at MonsterMortgage.ca. “They’re not necessarily reliable from my perspective.”
All consumer credit score platforms have small fine-print messages on their sites explaining that lenders might consult a different score from the one provided.
‘Soft’ vs. ‘hard’ credit check
The score that most Canadian lenders use is called a FICO score, previously known as the Beacon score. FICO, which is a U.S. company, sells its score to both Equifax and TransUnion. FICO says 90 per cent of Canadian lenders use it, including major banks.
But Canadian consumers cannot access their FICO score on their own.
To find out his FICO score, Agarwal had to agree to what’s known as a “hard” credit check. That’s where a business runs a credit check as though a customer is applying for a loan.
Lenders are contractually obligated not to share a copy of the report FICO provides with the customer. They can only discuss the information and provide insight.
A hard check comes with risk. Unlike the “soft” check Agarwal agreed to from the four websites, a hard check could negatively impact his credit score.
As Credit Karma’s website explains, “Multiple hard inquiries in a short period could lead lenders and credit card issuers to consider you a higher-risk customer, as it suggests you may be short on cash or getting ready to rack up a lot of debt.”
Mortgage broker Vince Gaetano offered to do a hard credit check for Agarwal, as if he was applying for a loan, so he could learn his FICO score.
Agarwal took him up on the offer and was stunned to learn his FICO score was 829 — nearly 200 points higher than the lowest score he received online.
“Oh my god!” Agarwal said when he heard the news. “I am really happy, but totally surprised.”
Doug Hoyes, co-founder of Hoyes, Michalos and Associates Inc., one of the largest personal insolvency firms in Canada, was also surprised by the disparity between Agarwal’s FICO score and the other scores he’d received.
“How can you be poor somewhere and fantastic somewhere else?”
Marketplace asked all four credit score companies why Agarwal’s FICO score was so different from the ones provided on their sites.
No one could provide a detailed answer. Equifax and TransUnion did say their scores are used by lenders, but they wouldn’t name any, citing proprietary reasons.
Credit Karma declined to comment. However, on its customer service website, it says the credit score it provides to consumers is a “widely used scoring model by lenders.”
‘A complicated system’
The free services, Borrowell and Credit Karma, make money by arranging loan and credit card offers for customers who visit their sites. Borrowell told Marketplace the credit score it provides is used by the company itself to offer loans directly from Borrowell. The company could not confirm whether any of its lending partners also use the score.
“So there are many different types of credit scores in Canada … and they’re calculated very differently,” said Andrew Graham, CEO of Borrowell. “It’s a complicated system, and we’re the first to say that it’s frustrating for consumers. We’re trying to help add transparency to it and help consumers navigate it.”
From Agarwal’s perspective, the credit companies are simply using the scoring system as a marketing tool.
“There should be one score,” he said. “If they are running an algorithm, there should be one score, no matter what you do, how you do it, should not change that score.”
The FICO score is also the most popular score in the U.S. Unlike in Canada, Americans can access their score easily by purchasing it on FICO’s website, or through FICO’s Open Access Program, without any risk of it impacting their credit rating.
FICO told Marketplace it would like to bring the Open Access Program to Canada, but it’s up to Canadian lenders.
“We are open to working with any lender and their credit bureau partner of choice to enable FICO Score access to the lender’s customers,” FICO said in an email.
Hoyes, the insolvency expert, suggests instead of focusing on your credit score, a better approach to monitoring your financial status would be to shift attention to your credit report and ensuring its accuracy.
All four websites Marketplace looked at provide credit reports to consumers.
A credit report is the file that describes your financial situation. It lists bank accounts, credit cards, inquiries from lenders who have requested your report, bankruptcies, student loans, mortgages, whether you pay your credit card bill on time, and other debt.
Hoyes said consumers are trying too hard to have the perfect credit score. The fact is, some activities that could boost a credit score, such as getting a new credit card or taking on a loan, aren’t necessarily the best financial decisions.
“My advice is to focus on what is better for your financial health, not what is best for the lender’s financial health.”
He said paying off debt and increasing savings is a better idea than focusing solely on the factors that can increase your credit score.
You focusing on this one metric, that isn’t the same thing the lender is using anyways, is really pointless, and I think it leads to bad decisions.– Doug Hoyes, Hoyes, Michalos and Associates Inc.
He points to billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the third richest person in the world, as an example.
“Would you rather lend to Warren Buffett, who’s got … cash in the bank but has a lousy credit score because he’s never borrowed and hasn’t built up any history, or some guy who has five credit cards and he constantly … moves the balance from one to the other and keeps his utilization under 20 per cent?”
The real estate, mortgage and auto lenders Marketplace spoke with said they look at more than just your credit score before making a lending decision. They also consider things like your income, your history with their company, the size of a downpayment, and other factors not reflected in your score.
For Hoyes, those factors are much more important than a three-digit number.
“You focusing on this one metric, that isn’t the same thing the lender is using anyways, is really pointless, and I think it leads to bad decisions.”
The good news, according to Borrowell CEO Andrew Graham, is that if you’re doing things like paying your bills on time and not maxing out your credit cards, you will see improvement in whatever credit score you track.
“I think that’s the power here.”