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If you paid to see your credit score, it may not be the real one lenders see

The CFPB fined Equifax and TransUnion for misrepresenting credit score products it sold to consumers. Source: AP

Consumers can check their credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus every 12 months for free, on annualcreditreport.com. Created by the bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, in the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), the reports let people check to make sure their credit history doesn’t have anything sketchy or incorrect, like a fake bank account set up by Wells Fargo (WFC).

Unfortunately, credit reports aren’t the same thing as a credit score, which actually evaluates your creditworthiness based on a handful of criteria and gives you a grade, or score. That grade is what’s used by most financial institutions and lenders to determine your credit risk and interest rate you’ll be charged. It can mean the difference of thousands of dollars, if good credit gives you a better interest rate on a mortgage or auto loan.

The bureaus have offered extra services, for a fee, that allow you to check your score. Last week, however, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), reported that these services were deceiving customers, and subsequently ordered Equifax and TransUnion to pay a total of $23 million – $17.6 million to customers as restitution and $5.5 million to the CFPB.

According to the CFPB, the companies advertised to consumers that the credit score products for sale were the exact same ones they provide to lenders. While they were similar, the weren’t the same.

The scores that TransUnion sells to consumers are based on a model from VantageScore Solutions, LLC,” the CFPB wrote in a press release. “Although TransUnion has marketed VantageScores to lenders and other commercial users, VantageScores are not typically used for credit decisions.”

A similar situation was described for Equifax, which used its own proprietary score—not typically used by lenders. Though VantageScores are used by lenders, it’s a much newer alternative to the standard, FICO, and it’s usually only used when there’s not enough credit history for a FICO score, according to NerdWallet. The alternatives may be similar, but they’re not the same—leading the CFPB to call them misleading.

Besides impugning the usefulness of the scores sold to consumers, the CFPB noted that the credit bureaus were ensnaring customers in unwanted subscriptions after they paid or signed on to see them. While these products were often free or inexpensive ($1 to see the scores), they resulted in recurring subscription charges if consumers didn’t actively opt out.

In addition to the fines and changing its representation of these products, the CFPB has exhorted the credit reporting agencies to get permission prior to enrolling consumers in a product that will charge them in the future, as well as providing an easy way to opt out and cancel.

Fortunately for consumers, the challenge of getting a credit score is easing. Today, many credit card companies like Discover and American Express provide a free estimate of a person’s credit score—something that can be a useful proxy when all a consumer requires is a ballpark.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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