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Why Should You Have to Pay for Your Credit Score?

Seriously. Why should you buy your credit score? After all, the score is based on your information. Shouldn't it belong to you? Yet federal law requires you to pay $15 to get it. The fee is a gift to credit scoring companies like Fair Isaac, Choicepoint, TransUnion and Vantage. They don't need the dough; they already collect zillions of dollars from banks, car dealerships and other lenders who buy your score to make sure they're charging you enough to offset their risk.

True, some websites offer you the score for free, but only if you give them your credit card number and sign up for a monthly credit monitoring service, an item you don't need unless you are planning to buy a house and a car every other day. Some of them, like, peddled by celebrity economist Ben Stein (whom I wrote about a while ago), charge as much as $29.95 a month, an outrageous amount to learn, for example, that Greedibank made an inquiry to see if you are worthy enough to receive an offer for its Visa Extortion card.

Sometimes I think (actually I think it pretty much all the time) that the hullabaloo about the importance of knowing your credit score -- and knowing it every moment of the day -- is nothing more than propaganda pumped out by the scoring companies to scare you. Oooh, you'd better get your score or something terrible will happen! Ooh, your score will follow you wherever you go! Doesn't this remind you of the Permanent Record that teachers warned you about in high school? When you finally got to college, you realized that nobody cared that you got a D in French.

I developed my own guerrilla method of getting my score without paying. I download a credit report from the official government website (which allows you to get three free reports a year, one from each of the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). Then I fed the data into the FICO Estimator at the webiste of Fair Isaac, the company that invented the credit score. The number should be close to the actual score.

A couple of new enterprises have caught my why-pay-for-it fever. Credit Karma buys your score from TransUnion and lets you have it for free, along with tips on raising it (if it's low). The drawback: You have to opt in to receive email from the company. (Of course, if you're really a free-loader, you could direct the stuff to your spam folder.), a financial services website, offers a similar service. It downloads your report from TransUnion and shows you how you rank on credit scoring systems used by Fair Isaac, Vantage and TransUnion. It doesn't give you a score, only a grade on the five ingredients of your score, but that should be enough to tell you whether you have a problem.

These are all good workarounds. But now that Congress is considering a batch of financial reforms, here's one that would be easy to enact: Repeal the stupid $15 charge and give consumers access to their own financial information.

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