Can Alternative Credit Scores Hurt You?

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We’ve written quite a bit on alternative credit scores at Credit.com over the years — and on how these non-traditional scores based on things like utility and rent payments can help consumers with “thin” credit files qualify for credit cards and loans. But can the opposite also be true? Can people who have healthy “traditional” credit scores be stymied by the use of alternative scores?

There’s emerging evidence that it is, in fact, possible.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times recounts the experience of one such man, Joseph, who applied for a travel rewards card through Bank of America only to be rejected because of the bank’s use of an alternative credit score from a company called Credit Optics.

Now, keep in mind that Joseph told the Times that his traditional credit score from FICO is an 820. That’s an excellent score based on FICO’s scale of 300-850 (learn more about what counts as a good credit scores here). And Joseph told the Times that his debt-to-income ratio is below 20%, which you might already know means he carries very little debt based on his ability to repay. While FICO doesn’t measure debt-to-income, the amount of debt you’re carrying compared to your total credit availability is a critical part of your FICO score.

Joseph’s alternative score through Credit Optics was a 374 on a wide scale of 1 to 999, which, a company representative reportedly told the Times was a “pretty good” score. But it wasn’t good enough for Bank of America to approve his request for a new credit card. (Bank of America did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment.)

The rest of the details around Joseph’s rejection aren’t clear, but it begs the question: Can it happen to you? The short answer is yes.

It Could Happen to You

“When alternative credit data first started to be used, the idea was that this was going to fill in thin files for people who didn’t have a lot of credit history with traditional financial products,” said Thomas Bright, a writer with Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions. “That was the idea early on, and this looks like more of a trend toward using these scores for even the traditional consumer who has a positive traditional credit history. That’s a new trend that brings a whole new set of concerns.”

Specifically, those concerns revolve around not knowing what information will be used to make up your alternative credit scores. It could be your utility bills, your rent — essentially every single bill you might receive. Bills for not returning library books on time. Or even your driving and arrest records, as some alternative scores include information from public records. Nearly anything could be fair game when it comes to determining your creditworthiness.

“It’s really comes down to transparency,” Bright said. “When you look at FICO, it’s very clear. There are five categories that make up your score, and then it’s one step from there to figure out how you can influence these five categories. And then you can really take your destiny into your own hands and shape your credit score and credit profile. But when we talk about alternative data, that’s not possible for most people because … it’s not clear how much alternative data there is on them, and they don’t have access to see it.”

What You Can Do

Broader use of alternative scores in conjunction with traditional credit scores means you’ll need to make certain you make timely payments on every financial commitment you have to avoid any blemishes that could negatively impact you, Bright said. You’ll also need to appear stable, so having direct deposit from your employer can be helpful, as can moving infrequently.

Setting up auto-pay for your monthly bills can help ensure you don’t miss or make a late payment. Also, avoiding overdrafts on your bank accounts can also help because some alternative data takes that information into account when determining your credit score.

If you’re ever denied credit, it’s good to review the denial to find out what credit reporting agency the financial institution used. If it’s one of the big three agencies, it’s a good idea to pull your credit reports, which you can do for free every year at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can then begin to clean up any blemishes and improve your credit scores. Likewise, if you see errors on your reports, you can dispute those errors so they are removed.

If you were denied because of a report issued by an alternative credit scoring company, you can contact them and see if they will explain to you what is included in their calculations so you can attempt to dispute, correct or mitigate that data. But that could be easier said than done.

[CREDIT REPAIR HELP: If you need help fixing your credit but don’t want to go it alone, our partner, Lexington Law, can manage the credit repair process for you. Learn more about them here or call them at (844)-346-3295 for a free consultation.]

Image: PeopleImages

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