CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It might be the most important piece of financial information about you — and it's finally easier for you to actually get a look at it.
Big banks and credit card companies are increasingly offering customers free access to their FICO score. This score, named after the software and analytics company that developed it, is used by lenders to determine how risky you are when they are deciding whether to issue a new credit card, mortgage or auto loan.
Banks have been able to make scores available to customers for four years, a result of a FICO initiative, but they have been slow to do so. Discover Financial was the first major credit card issuer to give its customers access to their FICO scores in 2013. But banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup among others have adopted the program in the past year.
"This is a piece of information that grades you and judges your ability to borrow, and because it is so crucial, you should be entitled to have it," said Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
It's the latest move by the banks to give credit information to consumers since Congress required that the three credit bureaus offer credit reports to individuals once a year. Credit reports contain much of the information that goes into determining your score, but not the actual number.
A borrower's FICO score is used in 90 percent of lending decisions, but until recently a person had to pay for it — if it was available at all. Worse, borrowers looking for their credit score would sometimes be provided what's known as an "educational score" which guesses a person's FICO score but is not the score used to determine a person's ability to borrow.
Knowing your credit score can help you negotiate for better rates and shop for better loan deals. Also, if you know your score is weak, you can work to improve it and possibly save hundreds of dollars on a future loan, or thousands of dollars on a mortgage.
Because of the lack of availability, FICO estimates that only half of Americans have accessed their score in the past year and far more don't know what their score is.
Fair Isaac Corp. created the FICO score in the late 1980s. Jim Wehmann, executive vice president of scores for FICO, said the company recently developed what it calls its "Open Access" program partly because banks were already paying for borrowers' FICO scores and there was little to no cost for banks to pass along the score.
"There was lots of confusion out there about what a FICO score is, and those educational scores were not helping. We felt the banks were the natural conduit to get consumers FICO scores, because that's where the credit process begins," Wehmann said.
Wehmann estimates 100 million Americans now have access to their FICO score through a credit card or their bank.
There are a number of different types of credit scores that FICO calculates, but the most common is a number between 300 and 850 points. The higher the score, the more creditworthy that borrower is. The average U.S. credit score is about 695, FICO says. FICO uses a formula — it does not share the exact calculations — that factors a borrower's payment history, how much debt the person has, if they have ever filed for bankruptcy and other financial behavior.
Free FICO scores have become a selling feature for banks. When Chase added free FICO score access to its Slate card in March 2015, applications and usage rose, said Pam Codispoti, president of consumer branded cards at Chase. Codispoti said the bank is considering adding the FICO score feature to its other cards.
"It was really about stepping up to meet a consumer need. Everyone benefits when our customers have more tools to handle their financial lives," she said.
Getting your credit score through your bank won't impact your credit score, FICO says, since the borrower is not actively looking to get new credit. Some credit card companies, like Chase and Discover, also provide tips on how a customer can improve their credit score, like making sure you don't max out credit cards or miss payments.
Consumer advocates — regular critics of big banks — back the trend.
The increased availability of free FICO scores could mean decreased revenue for the three main credit agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — that sell credit scores, credit monitoring and credit reports to consumers. The agencies' main source of business, though, is compiling, maintaining and selling credit reports to banks.
Ken Sweet covers banking and consumer financial issues for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet or email him at email@example.com.