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More people than ever before will get free access to their credit scores thanks to two laws that will kick in this year.

That's good, but it's not enough. Everyone should have access to the scores being used to judge them, and that's not on the horizon. In fact, one of the most widely used scores is off-limits to you as a consumer -- although it's still available to lenders. That should make you mad.

Here's a little background:

  • Since 2004, you've had the right to free annual looks at your credit reports compiled by the three major credit bureaus; the site to use is AnnualCreditReport.com.
  • But you don't have a similar right to a free peek at your credit scores, the three-digit numbers lenders use to help gauge your creditworthiness.
  • Typically, offers of free scores require you to sign up for expensive credit-monitoring services. Either that, or the scores you get for free aren't the FICO scores most lenders use.
  • You can buy two of your three FICO scores at myFICO.com for $19.95 each. But your third FICO is off-limits. Credit bureau Experian decided to stop selling FICO scores to consumers, although it continues to market them to lenders.

If credit scores weren't so important, your access to them wouldn't be a big deal. But credit scores are hugely influential in determining the rate and terms you get for loans and credit cards. They're widely used by insurers and landlords as well.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Having to pay to see your scores is annoying. But not being able to see one of your FICOs at all can really put you at a disadvantage, especially when you're shopping for a major loan such as a mortgage where all three scores will be checked.

As a matter of fact, it's thanks to mortgages that many people learn about their credit scores. Lenders have been required since 2003 to disclose to applicants the scores used to judge them, said John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com.

More lenders must disclose scores

Other lenders didn't face the same disclosure requirements -- until this year. You still won't be able to see your scores on demand, however. Scores will be revealed only be after lenders and others have passed judgment, and only if you don't get the best rates and terms available.

Such a situation is called adverse approval, and it's one of those delightfully oxymoronic terms that litter the financial-services industry. What it means is that you got the loan or credit card, but others got better rates, more favorable terms or both.

In the past, you might never have known you got less than the ideal deal, but as of Jan. 1, lenders are supposed to do one of two things to notify you. They can either:

  • Send you a "risk-based pricing notice," which informs you that your credit history was used to determine your less-than-favorable rate and terms. You'll be told where you can get a free copy of your credit report -- a copy that doesn't count against your once-a-year freebies from AnnualCreditReport.com, Ulzheimer said.
  • Send you a "credit-score disclosure notice" that includes the actual score used to make the lending decision, the date the score was created and which credit bureau's report was used. You'll also be told how you compare with others on the credit-score scale.

This new requirement was added to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, a fair-credit-reporting law first passed in 2003.

Nobody has done a comprehensive survey, but many lenders seem to be opting for the more general "risk-based" notice, rather than coughing up the scores. Herb Weisbaum, an MSNBC columnist and Seattle consumer reporter, said only two of the six big credit-card companies he surveyed were sending out scores.

A decidedly unscientific survey of my Facebook fans showed that some who applied for loans and cards recently received scores, while others received the notice.

Ulzheimer says he thinks lenders are "trying to avoid some awkward phone calls," noting that a general letter directing you to your credit report is far less likely to trigger a reaction than a letter disclosing your actual score and telling you that you didn't quite measure up to others.

People who get their scores "are going to pick up the phone and call the bank," Ulzheimer said. "They're not going to pick up the phone and call FICO ... and banks want to avoid that conversation as long as possible."

Broader disclosure on the way

Lenders' ability to dodge those calls will end July 21, when a second law, called the Fair Access to Credit Scores Act, passed last year, kicks in and supersedes the current law's notices.

This law is much broader, and requires that lenders, insurers and others that use scores to evaluate you must disclose those scores to you if you're denied or given less than the best available deal. You'll get the scores if you:

  • Are turned down for credit, insurance or a rental property.
  • Have to pay more for credit or insurance than others.
  • Have to put down a bigger deposit for utilities, cell phone service or a rental property than others.
  • Are required to get a co-signer to qualify.

This is really going to crack open the vault. In addition to seeing the classic FICO scores that mortgage lenders traditionally use, Ulzheimer predicts people are going to start seeing "flavors of FICO we haven't seen anywhere before," such as those tweaked for auto or credit-card lenders. We'll also start seeing the different scores used by insurers, such as LexisNexis' Attract score.

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The disclosure should lay waste to the credit bureaus' claims that "a score is a score" and that it doesn't really matter which one you see, when the vast majority of scores that loan applicants see will be FICO scores. And it should raise more awareness, and discussion, of how credit is used in insurance decisions.

Ulzheimer predicts "welcome confusion" as people start seeing all these different scores. He says he thinks, as I do, that this will provoke some much-needed discussion -- among individuals, lawmakers and regulators -- about what goes into these scores and how important they are. I'm hoping it will also spur some action so that the rest of us get equal access to these scores.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.