Many consumers are confused about credit scores, harboring costly misunderstandings that could result in lower scores and thousands of dollars in extra finance charges, according to a just-released survey from the Consumer Federation of America.
Among the more troubling findings: Roughly 40 percent of consumers mistakenly believed that age and marital status were factors used to calculate credit scores; 80 percent underestimated the impact that a low score can have on the cost of a car loan (an extra $5,000 or more on a $20,000, 5-year loan); and roughly 25 percent did not know key ways to raise or maintain their scores.
Those and other misconceptions "are extremely concerning to us," said Barrett Burns, CEO at VantageScore Solutions, a Stamford, Conn., credit scoring company that co-sponsored the survey.
"People who fail to understand exactly what can impact their credit scores have little incentive to manage the things that truly make a difference," he said.
Overall, the best ways for consumers to raise their credit scores are to consistently pay bills on time, keep credit card and other revolving credit balances low (under 25 percent of credit limits), pay down debt rather than just move it around, avoid opening multiple new credit card accounts rapidly and regularly check credit reports for errors.
The survey also found hardly anyone (just 7 percent) knew that multiple credit inquiries for a mortgage or other loans made in a short one- to two-week window were treated as one inquiry and did not lower credit scores.
People who mistakenly believed multiple inquiries lowered their score were less likely to comparison shop for a loan, potentially costing them tens of thousands of dollars in interest charges, said Stephen Brobeck, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based CFA.
The majority of respondents were unaware that electric utilities, cell phone providers, home insurers and landlords often use credit scores to help them decide whether to provide a service or to determine rates, a deposit or a downpayment.
More than one third (37 percent) of consumers incorrectly believed credit repair agencies were "always" or "usually" helpful in correcting credit report errors and improving scores.
On the contrary, credit repair companies often over-promise, charge high prices and perform services that consumers could do themselves, the CFA said.
The survey, conducted in late April, also found that many people did not understand the financial implications of co-signing for a student loan.
For example, only around 30 percent of people knew that a co-signer's score dipped when the loan was first signed, declined if a student made even one late payment and improved if a student made timely payments.
In general, women knew more about credit scores than men, Mr. Brobeck said.
This was the third year for the CFA credit score survey, but the latest results were not comparable to previous years because of changes in methodology, he said.
Under federal law, consumers are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three national credit bureaus. The free reports can be ordered online at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228.
Generally there is a cost to obtain credit scores, but lenders are required to provide them for free under certain circumstances, such as after a consumer applies for a mortgage or is turned down for credit.
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.