Is There a Bad Way to Check Your Credit?Regularly reviewing your credit scores and reports is an important part of financial health, as maintaining good credit can help you secure the best credit card offers, interest rates and even housing. There are a variety of ways to check your credit, from free websites to subscription services, but are all of these ways equally useful? Are there certain credit checking methods that yield better results and others that are useless, or even dangerous? If you’re concerned about getting the most helpful credit information possible, and staying safe in the process, read on to see how you should check your credit.

FICO and three-bureau monitoring

If you’re looking for a service that can show your “true” credit scores, the reality is that credit scoring doesn’t really work that way, as credit scores can be calculated using a lot of different methods. Lenders use a variety of scoring models and credit data sources to determine your creditworthiness, and sometimes those scoring models are specific to an industry or customized for their particular business. It’s extremely difficult to find out the exact combination of credit scoring model and data source that a lender will use to evaluate your credit. That being said, some scoring models are certainly more widely used than others, and in the U.S. the dominant credit scoring model is the FICO score, developed by the Fair Isaac Corporation. According to Fair Isaac, 90% of top U.S. lenders use FICO scores to determine creditworthiness, with the FICO Score 8 reigning as the most popular version. If you look at FICO scores, you’re more likely to see scores that are calculated using the same method that most major lenders rely on.

To find FICO scores online for free, the most reliable place to turn is probably your credit card provider, as many card providers offer FICO scores to their customers that are updated once a month. If your credit provider doesn’t have this perk, Discover now provides free FICO scores on its website for everyone, even if you’re not a Discover customer. The downside of relying on credit card providers exclusively to check your credit is that most of these free scores are only sourced from one of the three major credit bureaus (for instance, Discover’s free FICO scores are based on data from TransUnion), and they don’t contain many details regarding the factors affecting your credit, so you miss out on getting a complete picture of how your credit is doing. To really stay on top of your credit, you need to keep track of it with all three major credit bureaus. This will probably give you a better idea of your credit’s health than just using the most popular scoring model will, and the easiest way to do it is by signing up with a credit monitoring service. Not only will a credit monitoring service keep you updated on how your credit scores are doing at each of the three major credit bureaus, it’ll also provide identity theft protection and alert you to suspicious activity on your credit reports.

While you can view one credit report from each major credit bureau for free once every 12 months through, it costs money (around $5 to $10 per score) to get copies of your FICO credit scores. Credit report monitoring is also an option, but not all services are free and the only one we review that offers FICO scores is MyFICO — the others offer educational scores, which we explain below. It’s beneficial to check both your credit reports as well as your scores so you can see what’s affecting your credit, including signs of fraud and mistakes.

Alternative and educational scores

While it’s not common to find completely free, open services that will show you your FICO scores, there are a lot of websites that will show you non-FICO credit scores for no charge. These websites, like CreditKarma, will generally use an alternative scoring model, such as VantageScore, that lenders sometimes use, but at a much less frequent rate when compared to FICO scores, as FICO claims, or they will show you “educational” credit scores, which are not used practically by lenders and exist solely to give consumers an idea of where their credit scores generally sit. Now, these scores may seem useless when compared to FICO scores since they aren’t as widely used by lenders, but they can actually give you a pretty decent estimate of where your credit stands. A study by the Federal Reserve comparing FICO scores, VantageScores and Equifax Risk Scores found that they were all correlated at least 88% with one another, meaning no matter which scoring model you used, your scores would be at least 88% the same as the other scoring models.

Even though these free credit services can help you get a pulse on how your credit is doing, they still have a few issues. First, like FICO scores from credit providers, many of these services only source their data from a single credit bureau, and they don’t give many details on the factors affecting your credit. Second, they require you to give them your personal information, such as your address and social security number, and they may not give you any details on what kind of privacy and security measures they take to keep that information safe. When you’re getting your scores from your credit card provider or a credit monitoring service you pay for, at least you know they have a vested interest to keep your private information safe. Third, some free credit scoring websites are actually fronts for scams. For example, in 2016, the Federal Trade Commission charged three companies that operated over 50 free credit checking websites with defrauding consumers when they illegally signed website users up for a bogus $29.95/month credit monitoring service without their consent. Using a free credit checking website can be better than not knowing your credit scores at all, but it does come with a set of risks and disadvantages.

Though using the proper credit scoring model can make it more likely that the credit scores you see will be close to the credit scores your lender sees, that’s not as important as monitoring your scores at all three bureaus, digging into your credit reports’ details and staying on guard when you check your credit using a free service. For more on making sure your credit is the best it can be, follow our credit monitoring blog.