Credit scores are one of those quirky things that can easily blast consumers into a do-nothing fog.
Many people know they need to pay attention because higher scores mean lower rates on car loans, mortgages and the like. But what score do you need to see? Lenders use many different types of scores. Some experts say that at any time a consumer could have between 80 and 100 credit scores out there.
And the score you actually pay money to see? Consumers and lenders most often aren't looking at the same three digits.
"I think that these scores can be helpful for consumers to understand how scoring works, but it's important to note that the scores they get may not be exactly the same as the score that the particular lender will use if they apply for credit," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.
But Grant noted that she supports efforts in Washington to one day require that all consumers be able to receive free credit scores, too.
Yes, we're dealing with one of the least-friendly consumer financial products.
Some solid options do exist for obtaining a free credit score.
John Ulzheimer, president of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com, said some useful "truly free" credit scores are being given to consumers by websites like CreditSesame.com, Credit.com and CreditKarma.com.
Ulzheimer said some free credit scores are scores that lenders actually use. And even if it's not the same score your lender would use, it's likely to be close enough to reality.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found in a study issued last September that for a majority of consumers the scores produced by different scoring models provided similar information about relative creditworthiness. But the consumer watchdog agency noted that a "substantial minority" of consumers ended up with different results with different scoring models.
Some online options exist for learning new tricks for boosting credit scores, too.
Quizzle, part of the Quicken Loans family, provides free credit reports and free credit scores every six months.
The idea is to track that score and see what actions can be taken to improve one's credit, according to Todd Albery, CEO of Quizzle.
"In a perfect world, you would have just one score," Albery said. "Even different lenders use different versions of FICO."
Albery said it's important for consumers to take time to understand what can be done to improve a score.
For many consumers, he said, it might be tempting to try to improve a credit score say three or four months before taking out a car loan or a mortgage. But many times, a loan is triggered by an unexpected event.
So Albery maintains that consumers need to review their credit reports and scores even when they don't think they're going to borrow money.
Consumers can improve their credit in many ways without even seeing a credit score.
Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com, said consumers need to understand how their use of credit impacts their credit report and credit score.
"You want this to be a résumé, not a rap sheet," Levin said.
Consumers want to make sure to pay bills on time.
Watch how much you borrow on individual cards. It's not a lot to borrow $300 on a credit card. But you don't want to borrow $300 on a credit card that has a limit of $400 — especially if you don't have other credit. This is often true even if you pay off the balance each month.
Do not be afraid to shop around for a loan within a reasonable time frame. And don't be afraid to obtain your credit score, either. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. noted in an alert that your credit score is not lowered when you order your own credit report.
Do not automatically close accounts that haven't been used in a while, particularly credit cards that you've had a long time and ones that do not have an annual fee. Many credit experts note that closing an account can lower your available credit and make the ratio of credit used to credit available worse. If you have $2,000 of credit card debt outstanding, it hurts your score more if your total available line of credit is $5,000 instead of $15,000.
Checking out your credit
■ Make sure to get a free annual credit report at Annualcreditreport.com. Or you can call (877) 322-8228 to request a free report from the three major credit bureaus. Seeing a credit report can help you spot errors to dispute.
■ Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com, noted that consumers can also get a free score from lenders in most cases if they're rejected for a loan or receive an unfavorable rate relative to someone with good credit.
■ Be careful when signing up for any offers of free credit reports or free credit scores. Some consumers have complained of unknowingly agreeing to sign up for credit monitoring services that can cost up to $30 a month.
■ Think twice about paying for any credit score. Consumer Reports noted in its July issue: "We see no point in buying any consumer credit scores, given that they're not the same ones used by lenders."
Source: Detroit Free Press research.
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stomporfreepress.com.