Originally created 08/25/02

Services help manage credit



NEW YORK - There are times when consumers need to keep a particularly close watch over their credit ratings.

People applying for a mortgage or car loan, for example, face higher interest rates if their credit scores are low. Someone who has lost a charge card might worry that a thief could use it to run up bills. A person who has overdosed on credit card spending might be seeking a path to more-balanced finances.

In recent months, a number of new services have come online to help consumers manage credit. These services make it easier for people to get their credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. Some offer e-mail updates on any changes in the reports, while others give advice on what consumers need to do to improve their credit scores. All charge fees.

Of course, consumers can monitor their credit on their own by buying reports at least once a year from the three major credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - and holding down their debt. But many don't.

"It fits into the category of house cleaning and lawn mowing," said Steve Rhode, who runs the credit counseling service Myvesta.org in Rockville, Md. "It's one of those things people can do themselves, but if they can afford to get somebody else to do it, they will."

Craig Watts of Fair, Isaac & Co. believes growing consumer sophistication is behind the rising demand for credit management services.

"After people learned they could manage their assets, like the stocks in their retirement accounts, they began to find that they can exert similar control over their credit relationships," Mr. Watts said.

Consumers also have found that credit scores can affect far more in their lives than loan rates, he added.

Corporations check the credit reports of people they're thinking of hiring. Insurance companies weigh credit reports in determining a potential customer's risk - and the premium they'll charge. The terms of an auto lease agreement can reflect a good or bad credit record. The special offers from credit card companies are based on a consumer's credit worthiness.

Fair, Isaac, based in San Rafael, Calif., developed the mathematical formula used to generate FICO scores, which are compiled from data that credit card issuers, banks and loan companies supply to credit bureaus. The higher the score, the better deal consumers can get on their loans.

Fair, Isaac began selling the scores to consumers last year at www.myfico.com, along with advice on how to improve them. It now also offers Score Power, which gives customers quarterly updates of their reports from the Equifax credit bureau for $59.95 a year.

The site www.consumerinfo.com, which is owned by the Experian credit bureau, offers consumers a $79.95 a year package called the CreditCheck Monitoring Service that gives them regular access to credit reports from all three bureaus.

"You also get an analysis of why your credit score is what it is," said president Ed Ojdana. "It's very personalized, as in, 'You've got 18 credit cards. That's way too many, and it's driving your score down."'

The site www.truecredit.com also offers reports from the three major credit bureaus, with scores and analysis. It has a menu of different services, starting with $45 for a 3-in-1 credit report, credit score and "borrowing power" analysis. One add-on, priced at $10.95 a quarter, gives a customer weekly "fraud watch" e-mail alerts.

Chief executive Russell Schaub said that besides the Web site, TrueCredit software is being used by a number of banks and credit card companies that have begun offering their customers online credit management services.

"It works two ways," Mr. Schaub said. "We help financial institutions empower their customers, and they make more loans."

Mr. Schaub's company currently is offering a free trial product at www.freecreditprofile.com. ConsumerInfo has a free trial offer on its site, too.

Among the financial companies that have begun offering credit management services to their customers is American Express. Its Trackstar service, which monitors Experian bureau reports, is available to cardholders at www.americanexpress.com/trackstar for an annual fee of $79.99.

"One feature allows them to compare their score with the rest of the U.S. population," said spokeswoman Monica Beaupre. It also has personalized debt calculators as well as e-mail alerts if there are postings to a consumer's credit report of a new inquiry, a delinquent payment or other suspicious activity, she said.