Your Free Credit Score Is Different From What Lenders See. Here’s Why

A woman holds up her phone revealing her credit score.
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder
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I once read some advice from a random person on the internet that concerns me. 

Shocking, I know.

In researching credit scores, I found this advice from esteemed credit expert “Anonymous” about sites that offer your free credit score:

“[Sites like] Credit Karma show your fake TransUnion and Equifax scores, using the Vantage 3.0 system instead of the FICO system… I warn highly against using these free services because in my case, my credit scores… were inflated and inaccurate.”

OK, Anonymous. You’ve got my attention. 

What is a “fake” credit score, and are the free scores I’m seeing online way off from what’s used to determine whether I get a loan or credit card?

Short answer: No, the score you see isn’t “fake,” and no, it’s not “inflated.” But, yes, it is probably different from what your bank and others see when they run a credit check.

You can get a free credit score and credit report from a site like Credit Sesame to get an idea of where you’ll stand with lenders. But it’s not exactly what they see.

Let’s find out why.

The Difference Between Credit Scores 

Let’s review some of the basics…

We have three major credit-reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. They keep track of your financial activity and produce reports that list your credit history.

To create your credit score, these agencies — and a bunch of smaller ones that do a similar job — each use a complicated formula to turn your credit activity into a sort of grade.

The reason there’s a difference between credit scores is partly because two models for computing your score dominate the market: FICO and VantageScore.

Both models have the same goal: to determine whether you’ll be able to repay a loan in a timely manner. They use the same information — credit reports from the three major agencies — but weigh various factors differently.

It’s like how you could always get an A on a paper in Ms. Jones’ class, but got a C from Mr. Johnson. The latter cared about word count, while Jones only graded on the quality of your writing. #TeamJones

To put it another way, Carla Blair-Gamblian, a consultant team lead at Veterans United Home Loans, told me, “A good comparison would be Celsius versus Fahrenheit. A 700 on one scale isn’t the same as a 700 on the other.”

That’s true, though the scales have become more similar in recent years. When VantageScore first came along in 2006, its scale ran from 501 to 990. But VantageScore 3.0, launched in 2013 — and the updated VantageScore 4.0, launched in 2017 — mirrors FICO’s scale of 300 to 850.

On top of these popular models, some smaller agencies might use their own models to determine your credit score. If your bank or credit card company uses one of these agencies for your credit check, it’ll see a credit score you’ve probably never seen before.

How Do You Know When You’re Looking at the Right Credit Score?

So, you want to stay on top of your credit score. You don’t want to apply for a loan or credit card with no idea how you’ll fare — that’s an unnecessary ding on your credit report.

But how do you know you’re even looking at the right information?

The bad news: You might not ever see the exact score your creditor sees when they run a credit check. 

Good news: You can still arm yourself with the best information available.

“The free credit scores consumers get online are educational scores,” Blair-Gamblian explains.

Keeping an eye on the credit scores you do have available can help you make smarter decisions when you need to borrow money. Just make sure you understand what you’re looking at.

Here’s what you’ll see when you get your credit score from various sources:

  • When you pay to see your score from TransUnion or Experian, you’ll get a Vantage 3.0 score.
  • When you pay to see your score from Equifax, you’ll see a score based on its own Equifax Credit Score model.
  • When you sign up to see your score for free through Credit Sesame, or any of these other free credit score providers, you’ll see your VantageScore, usually from TransUnion.
  • If you sign up to see your free credit score from Discover Bank through its Credit Scorecard program, you’ll see your FICO score from Experian.

Your credit applications are still more likely to be evaluated using a score created by FICO, according to

It’s also harder to get for free than your VantageScore, although it’s available from a few sources.

Free Credit Scores Aren’t “Fake”

Sorry to hear about your experience, Anonymous, but you’re spreading bad information. Don’t be afraid to use free credit score services — just know what you’re getting. 

To ensure your best chances for getting the loans or credit you need, study what actually impacts your credit score, and take some smart steps to build good credit when you’re ready to improve it.

Dana Sitar ([email protected]) is a former branded content editor at The Penny Hoarder.