Discover Giving Free FICO Scores To All Cardholders, But Are They Actually Useful?

All Americans are, as Consumerist is happy to remind you, entitled to access their own annual credit reports for free. But those reports are just that: reports. They don’t come with credit scores on them. For those, you still have to pay. Unless, that is, you happen to have a Discover card–and maybe, someday, other major credit cards, too.

As Bloomberg reports, Discover began a pilot program last November where monthly statements to some cardholders included those customers’ FICO scores on them for no additional fees. This month, Discover’s opening up that offering to all of its cardholders.

That’s great for Discover customers, but what about other banks? A representative for FICO told Bloomberg that his organization is in the middle of negotiations with “some of the largest credit-card issuers” to distribute that information to their customers, too. The FICO rep indicated to Bloomberg that the major hurdle was a “technology-implementation challenge,” saying, “You’re talking about millions of customers, a tremendous amount of data, and how do you squeeze more data in an already jammed space” on statements.

If the biggest challenge is one of layout and formatting, it seems likely that banks willing to provide FICO scores to their customers could almost certainly find a way. Are they really willing? Hard to tell. Discover is the 6th largest card issuer in the country, according to Bloomberg. None of the five bigger ones–JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, American Express, and Capital One–would provide Bloomberg with a comment.

Still, let’s say some of the big credit card companies do eventually jump on board with free FICO scores for their customers. Will those scores be useful to the consumers who receive them? Probably, but there are caveats.

There are dozens of different kinds of credit scores out there, and every entity looking at yours–credit card companies, auto loan lenders, and so on–sees a different one. For most of us, the numbers are consistent. For about 20% of us, though, there are inconsistencies, and those discrepancies can cause problems.

Will the FICO score you get with your monthly credit card statement be the same one that a lender sees when they look you up? Maybe. Will you have any real way of knowing what they see? Not really.

Right now, many credit-card-issuing banks are more likely to look at a consumer’s Vantage Score, not FICO score. So why would FICO and card issuers give out this information for free to consumers? In a sense, it’s marketing.

FICO charges the bank to retrieve the score–it can be free to the consumer because it’s already been paid for. The bank then already has it; providing it to the customer doesn’t cost anyone anything extra. If consumers get hooked on those FICO scores, that could mean more business for FICO from those very same card issuers and consumers in the future.

Still, without a law to help consumers have the same guaranteed access to their credit scores that they have to their credit reports, the numbers can be expensive to come by.

Attaching FICO scores to credit card statements wouldn’t help consumers who don’t have the right cards, of course, but it would at least let many more people find out for themselves what other companies already know about them. It may be a single snapshot from a much more complex and hard to read system, but it’s still information–and free from a business you already work with is certainly better than getting taken by a scammier score seller.

U.S. Banks Weigh Free FICO Scores as Discover Expands Offering [Bloomberg]