You can get your credit report for free, but getting your actual credit scores has always been a bit more challenging. However, that appears to be changing.

Several credit card companies are now providing their customers with free access to their credit scores as part of their services. And that's not just the "proprietary" credit scores that increasingly pop up when customers try to look into their credit - those are actual FICO credit scores, the type most often used by lenders when making the decision to issue credit.

Discover, Barclays among the first

Discover Card is one of the leaders, having begun in February to include on a borrower's monthly statement their FICO score as provided by TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting firms. Barclaycard, the credit card provided by the U.S. branch of Barclay's, is also giving its customers free access to their TransUnion FICO scores.

First Bankcard, issued by the First National Bank of Omaha, is also providing free access to FICO scores, using scores provided by Experian. And Capital One is rolling out a program this month where some card holders of will have free access to their FICO scores as well.

A few of the cards have certain limitations. The FICO score provided by First Bankcard is a credit card-specific score, based on a range of 250 to 900, unlike the more general purpose FICO scores that use a range from 300 to 850. It's not clear what FICO score the Capital One card will provide.

Furthermore, Capital One is only offering free FICO scores to holders of its Journey card, a card specifically intended for students, and which carries higher interest rates than some of its other cards.

It's not clear if other card issuers intend to follow suit, but there does seem to be a trend developing in that direction.

Credit reports vs. credit scores

Currently, borrowers have the right under federal law to obtain a free annual copy of their credit report from each of the three major credit reporting firms - Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Those reports detail the status of their various credit accounts as reported by creditors - their payment history and status for credit cards, auto loans, mortgages and the like.

However, getting your credit score tends to be a bit more challenging. The credit agencies typically include a credit score with their reports nowadays, but those scores aren't FICO scores - they're what are generally described as proprietary scores, credit rating systems that use a different numerical scale than FICO (one uses a 500-990 scale, for instance) and may vary in how they determine a borrower's score.

Borrowers seeking their FICO score have typically had to pay to do so, usually $25 - or sign up for a credit monitoring service that provides FICO scores as part of the package. The other way to get a FICO score has been to apply for a loan and then see what score comes back when the company responds to the application.

Federal regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in particular, have been pressing to make more financial information available to consumers to enable them to make better decisions. It's not clear if this new trend is in respond to that or if the card companies figure it will help them be more competitive.

Published on March 2, 2010