Friday, September 4, 2009

The New Math of FICO Credit Scores

Those with small blemishes on their record should benefit from the FICO 08 scoring change, while high-risk borrowers and those who "piggyback" are the likely losers.

Even the most responsible borrowers slip up sometimes.

Maybe a utility bill went unpaid after you moved and the missed payment went into collections. Or perhaps there are unpaid library fines or parking tickets in collections that are hanging onto your credit history and affecting your FICO credit score, which is widely used.

With the newest version of the FICO credit-scoring system, however, minor delinquencies are now overlooked in calculating creditworthiness.

Under the updated scoring model, called FICO 08, small missed payments lingering in collections with original amounts of $100 or less will no longer do damage to your credit score.

Consumers also are less likely to be penalized for any single delinquency if it occurred two or more years ago -- and if their credit history is otherwise unblemished, says FICO (formerly Fair Isaac), which developed the FICO scoring system.

"There's more flexibility with missing a payment," said Careen Foster, the director of global scoring product management for FICO. "If you have a more habitual pattern of paying accounts late . . . you're more likely to get penalized for that."

If a consumer's credit usage is high, that will be more likely to hurt his or her score with FICO 08. But getting close to your credit-card limits -- even if you always pay on time -- is penalized in some way in every FICO score, not only the recent edition, Foster said.

The changes were made to provide lenders with a better risk assessment of borrowers, said John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education for, a consumer education and advocacy site. FICO decided that one small library fine didn't really predict whether a consumer was likely to default, for example.

With the changes, individuals who pose a low credit risk will probably see their scores rise a bit, and those who are high risk could see their scores drop, he adds.

FICO 08 also addresses "piggybacking," a practice used by credit-repair companies to help people improve their scores, Ulzheimer said. In piggybacking, an individual pays to become an authorized user on a stranger's account. The account holder gets paid for allowing the person to be associated with the account, and the new authorized user is able to improve his or her credit score.

"It was a practice to . . . misrepresent what your credit looks like to your bank," Foster said.

FICO 08 aims to single out individuals who are named as authorized sources through deceptive means, Ulzheimer said. Those people won't see their credit scores rise as a result. But the scores of legitimate authorized users will be treated as they always have been.

Credit Restoration Associates recommends that you still need to be proactive about your credit. By being proactive, you can start to work toward a higher score, something that will serve you well every time you apply for a loan.

Some CRA suggestions:

1. Monitor your credit reports and correct errors. Don't just look for negative events on your record; also examine your credit limits to make sure they're accurate. Credit limits that appear lower on the report than they actually are have the potential to hurt your score.

2. Pay bills on time and keep card balances low. Your payment history, and the amount you owe on your accounts as a ratio of the amount of credit you have access to, are important components of your score. FICO 08 is more sensitive to high credit usage, and consumers may see a lower score if their reported balance on one or more cards is near the account's limit.

3. Take on new credit only when you need it. Some credit cards come with great offers, including a percentage off your bill if you sign up at the cash register. If you accept, make sure you're getting a big enough benefit to make it worthwhile -- taking on additional credit could end up dinging your score.


How much is an inaccurate score costing you?

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