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The Business of Credit Scores

Consumer Confidential: Credit scores not created equal

Aug. 8, 2016

By DAVID LAZARUS Los Angeles Times (Tribune News Service)

Joseph is 43, owns a house outside Los Angeles and works in the entertainment industry.

He'd rather I just use his first name because he's going to discuss his FICO credit score -- it's very high -- and is concerned about identity theft.

At issue is a rejection letter Joseph received recently from Bank of America after he applied for a credit card that came with a bunch of Alaska Airlines miles. The bank's decision, it said, was based on a variety of factors, including "your total relationship with us, current economic trends and a copy of your credit report or reports."

It used to be that consumers needed to worry only about their FICO score, which primarily reflects how well you pay your bills. Now there are dozens of new players on the credit-reporting scene, each purporting to up FICO's game by adding their own secret sauce.

It also highlights, as you'll see, how various corporate entities drink from the vast watering hole that is Big Data, seeking opportunities to profit from people's most sensitive personal information.

"I have an 820 FICO score," Joseph told me. "I make all my mortgage payments and have very little revolving debt. My debt-to-income ratio is under 20 percent."

These are all good things. FICO scores, compiled by Fair Isaac Corp., range from 300 (lousy) to 850 (awesome). More than half the score depends on how much people owe and their payment history.

A debt-to-income ratio helps determine the likelihood you'll have enough cash to pay your bills, with a ratio below 36 percent generally considered a low credit risk.

Yet BofA didn't rejoice in Joseph's 820 FICO score. Instead, its letter cited something called a Credit Optics score, which in Joseph's case was 374 out of 999 (no explanation given). BofA said that if he had a problem with that, he could take it up with SageStream, a San Diego credit reporting agency.

"I called SageStream and asked how they came up with my score," Joseph said. "They couldn't tell me. I asked what would be a good Credit Optics score. They couldn't tell me that either."

I had better luck. I managed to reach Patrick Reemts, SageStream's executive vice president of credit risk solutions.

He explained that the company is focused to a large extent on providing lenders with information about millennials, people ages 18 to 34 who may have scant credit histories. A recent study by Bankrate found that two-thirds of millennials don't have credit cards.

"Lenders really want to offer services to this generation," Reemts said. "We help by looking at nontraditional information, such as people's relationship with wireless providers or Internet service providers, how well they pay their bills. The traditional FICO score is about debt. We focus on other uses of people's money."

The Credit Optics score is tabulated by a firm called ID Analytics, which, it turns out, is the parent company of SageStream, operates out of the same San Diego office and shares a chief executive, Scott Carter. Reemts admitted that consumers might easily be confused by their Credit Optics score. For one thing, a range of 1 to 999 covers a lot of ground. For another, the score comes in various permutations, some of which favor high numbers and some of which favor low numbers.

Reemts said he was unable to comment on Joseph's score, but observed that, generally speaking, 374 "is pretty good."

Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for the advocacy group Consumer Action, said consumers have every reason to be wary of newfangled credit scores that attempt to parse data in different ways.

"Someone with an 820 FICO score is an excellent customer," she said. "It's very difficult to say why any bank would turn him away."

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, said only that the bank uses "supplemental scores" such as Credit Optics "to take into account alternative information in making a credit decision versus just declining or approving based on a less predictive FICO score."

What makes SageStream especially intriguing isn't just that it's a credit-reporting agency owned by a company that compiles proprietary credit scores. It's also that SageStream's parent, ID Analytics, is itself owned by LifeLock, a prominent purveyor of identity-theft-protection services.

To be sure, the big three credit-reporting agencies -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- offer their own fraud-protection services. But for them, helping consumers cope with ID theft is a sideline, albeit a lucrative one. LifeLock is just the opposite. Fraud protection is its bread and butter. Credit reporting is the side gig.

I asked Reemts about the possibility of LifeLock using SageStream as a lead generator. That is, pitching consumers on fraud-protection services after a case of identity theft is reported.

Carter, the CEO of SageStream and ID Analytics, was promoted last week to also serve as executive vice president of enterprise for LifeLock. You'd think he'd be on the lookout for revenue-generating schemes that span his three companies.

Reemts said that even though SageStream's privacy policy states that "we may share personal information in connection with our affiliates for marketing," in practice no such information is passed along to LifeLock.

"That would be terrible for business if it got out," he said.

If nothing else, consumers should keep in mind that many cooks may be stirring the broth of their personal info. That may explain why decisions occasionally get made, as in Joseph's case, that defy easy explanation.

Reemts said any consumer puzzled by a Credit Optics score should call SageStream at 888.395.0277.

Joseph says he doesn't care about BofA's rejection letter. He figures it was just a blip and he can still take his 820 FICO score out for a spin any time he pleases.

Sherry at Consumer Action said FICO scores are still the big dogs, but consumers need to be aware that these scores are no longer the be-all and end-all of credit reporting.

If you encounter a decision you don't understand, she said, consider ordering a copy of your credit file to see if there's anything amiss.

"Above all," she said, "the old thinking still applies: Keep your outstanding debt reasonable and pay your bills."

About the Writer
David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues.

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