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Some 200 million U.S. consumers have FICO credit scores, while just under 3 million, or about 1.4 percent, have perfect 850s. That’s according to Fair Isaac Corp., the company behind the 28-year-old scoring model used by lenders to predict whether you will pay back a loan. But over the years the number has become much more than that—it’s now an American totem of success or failure, hope or despair, security or risk. While there are competing models, almost anyone with a credit card knows that a number typically ranging between 300 and 850 holds huge sway over their financial life.
Credit scores are three-digit numbers created using the information in credit reports. That information is used to try to predict how likely you are to pay your bills on time. While you have only three credit reports (at least from the major, national agencies), there are many different types of credit scores that can be calculated based on your credit information.
Most people have more than one credit report. Credit reporting companies, also known as credit bureaus or consumer reporting agencies, collect and store financial data about you that is submitted to them by creditors, such as lenders, credit card companies, and other financial companies. Creditors are not required to report to every credit reporting company.
Members of the 850 Club can be broken into two groups. There are the super-knowledgeable tacticians trying to crack scoring algorithms, and the naturally prudent. Some are prepping for a loan. Others are just credit-score hobbyists. Paul Chua, 40, who works at San Carlos, Calif.-based Helix, a startup focused on personal genomics, is one of the tacticians.
It's rare that a free credit score truly has no strings attached. In the best-case scenario, you get added to the company's mailing list and have to manually unsubscribe if you don't want to be. Worst-case scenario, you enter your credit card and get automatically enrolled in credit monitoring services. This will show up as a recurring monthly charge on your credit card until you cancel it. However, there's usually a small window -- seven or 14 days -- after you get your free credit score in which you can cancel your subscription without being charged for credit monitoring.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. The FCRA promotes the accuracy and privacy of information in the files of the nation’s credit reporting companies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the FCRA with respect to credit reporting companies.