Thursday, April 14, 2011

8 Secret Scores That Lenders Keep Part 2

Attrition-risk score: Attrition risk refers to the likelihood a user will stop using a card, and attrition-risk scores are typically used in combination with other scores to determine what to do next if you look ready to bolt. If your account generates a lot of revenue and is deemed at low risk for default or bankruptcy, for example, the issuer might aggressively try to keep your business by jacking up your credit limit, lowering your rate and pelting you with convenience checks. If your account isn't that profitable or is deemed risky, on the other hand, the issuer might just let you go.

Behavior score:
Credit scores provide a snapshot of how a consumer is handling all of his or her credit accounts. Behavior scores, by contrast, typically focus on a single account (the one you have with that particular creditor) but take in a broad view. Does the user pay off her bills every month, carry a balance occasionally or frequently pay only the minimums on her cards? That information typically isn't available on a credit report, but is contained in the issuer's databases, along with other data that helps the score describe how she handles her account. A behavior score might be used in conjunction with other scores, such as credit or bankruptcy scores, to decide whether an overdue payment is an aberration (maybe he's traveling?) or a sign of impending financial crisis (maybe we should call the consumer today and find out what's going on).

Transaction score: These are the scores run each time you use your plastic to determine whether the transaction should be approved. Issuers are typically looking for signs the transaction might be fraudulent, but transaction data can be used in other ways as well (more on that in a minute).

Collection score: You've failed to pay for long enough that your card has been turned over to a collection agency. These agencies use collection scores to assess the likelihood that you'll be able to pay them and sort their list of debtors accordingly. Collection agencies watch for all kinds of evidence that your financial situation may be improving, Ulzheimer said, from better credit scores to another collector's account suddenly being reset to 0, indicating it's been paid off.

If, on the other hand, your credit is in the dumps or the amount involved is small, the collection agency may make minimal effort.

"Why spend time and effort to track you down if you're not likely to pay?" Ulzheimer said. "Probably the most cost-effective (tactic) is to write you a letter, put it on your credit report and wait for you to call them."

Waiting, watching, hoping...

As several of the previous examples show, lenders and others often combine different types of scores to assess you. Sometimes the evaluations become pretty sophisticated.

One scoring model sold to lenders, the TRIAD Transaction Score created by Fair Isaac, takes into account credit risk, attrition, potential revenue and patterns in the user's charging behavior that might indicate higher or lower risk.

Let's say you typically spent $1,000 a month on your credit card, usually on toys, clothes and eating out at family restaurants. Then one month your spending changes -- you still spend $1,000, but now it's to get cash advances, buy groceries and gamble at the local racetrack.

The scoring formula may decide you've gone from Stable Family Guy to Desperate Unemployed Guy and flag the issuer that you've become a higher-risk customer.

Instead of a single three-digit number, TRIAD generates three numbers. Typically the scores will include a credit-risk score and an attrition score, both somewhere on a scale of 50 to 999 with higher numbers being riskier, plus a dollar figure to indicate the account's potential revenue generation.

If the issuer decides the risk of your default outweighs the profits you generate, it might reduce your credit limit. If you're a profitable customer, on the other hand, the card issuer might wait awhile to see if your situation improves.

Yes, it is rocket science...

How issuers decide what to do with the scores depends on their companies' policies, and even those are often changing targets. Credit card issuers constantly tweak their systems to maximize profits and minimize losses.

"Those guys at NASA have nothing on the Ph.D.s who work for credit card companies," Ulzheimer said. "They're Mensa-level smart, and they are very, very sophisticated in the ways they use credit data."

Which is not to say issuers, or the scoring systems they use, never make mistakes. Case in point: an issuer sending two different offers to the same household, as they did to ours. Most issuers use software to make sure that doesn't happen, Ulzheimer said; they don't want us comparing notes. (Bank of America didn't return my calls about the issue.)

In fact, financial institutions in general aren't eager to reveal how they make the decisions they do -- and that's not likely to change soon. While you have a federal right to see your credit scores, that's not true with other scores, which lenders often consider proprietary information.

Is that a crisis for consumers? I have mixed feelings about that. You clearly need to see your credit scores, since they influence so much of your financial life across the board. But given how many of these other scores are in use, how different they are and how many ways they're applied, I'm not sure I really want to see them all.

Back to 8 Secret Scores That Lenders Keep Part 1


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