With a 20-minute phone call to Experian, I was able to verify that my credit is in good shape, but learned that there are still some things I could be doing better.
Experian recently launched its Credit Educator service. With its new service, the credit bureau--which is better known for maintaining consumer credit reports--offers one-on-one credit report and credit score education. Consumers who place a call to the credit bureau not only get access to their Experian credit reports and VantageScore credit scores, but they can also get their specific questions answered by specially trained representatives. Although the service typically costs $29.95, as a reporter armed with a promotional code from the company, I recently was able to try the service for free.
Using the Credit Educator phone number (877-903-1009), I gave Experian a call. After providing my full name, date of birth and Social Security number, I had to answer a series of multiple-choice questions to verify my identity. Once I proved myself, the representative directed me to a section of Experian's website that gave me access to my online credit report. If I want to look my report over again, I will have 90 days--from the time I made that call--to access my credit report online.
The phone call went well. I liked the representative right away, but perhaps that's because she gave me the good news upfront: My credit report contained zero potentially negative items. Any of those items would appear on my credit report for seven to 10 years, she explained. "It's great you don't have any," she said. She explained that all my accounts are in good standing, with all debts paid on time. Maybe writing about credit scoring has made me a wiser borrower after all.
We moved on to my VantageScore, which is the credit score created by Experian and the other two major U.S. credit bureaus (Equifax and TransUnion) to compete with the dominant FICO score. As Experian's rep explained it, there's "not one universal credit score out there." According to their system, out of a range of 501 to 990, I have a VantageScore of 877, which gives me a risk grade of "B." How do I compare to others? The rep said the average VantageScore in the United States is 747. Based on where I live, she told me the average score in Texas is 717, while the average VantageScore in Austin, Texas, is 740. (While the credit report was accessible online, my VantageScore was mailed to me after the call.)
I was feeling pretty good about myself--momentarily. But then the educator let me know what factors were holding back my score. My list of shame: I need to pay down more of my mortgage. I need more available credit, either by raising my credit limits or by lowering my balances. I need to keep accounts open longer, since my oldest account was still opened too recently, based on Experian's estimation.
Then, the factor that really caught me off guard: I need to have fewer credit inquiries. Those inquiries occur when your credit is checked by banks or other lenders deciding whether to grant you credit; inquiries by consumers have no impact. At that moment, my credit report listed a grand total of exactly ... one inquiry.
How is one inquiry "too many"? The rep explained that the criteria get tougher as a consumer's credit score gets higher. In other words, because other borrowers in my scoring bracket may have no inquiries, I am getting graded against a tougher set of criteria. "Be picky with who you apply for credit with," the rep said, adding that inquiries appear on a credit report for two years and one month after they occur.
While I still may have some room to improve, I found that Experian's service runs smoothly. I was very impressed with the rep that I spoke to. She was patient and clearly addressed each section of the credit report. When I asked, she explained that she--like all Experian's credit educators--has been answering consumer questions for a long time, but was given special training for her role in the bureau's new service. At the time of my call, she said she had conducted about 250 education sessions. According to an Experian spokeswoman who I contacted later, as of the week of Oct. 24, 2011, about 700 education calls had been completed and 1,600 had been scheduled. At nearly $30 a call, that's almost $69,000 in total revenue for Experian.
Of course, the service will continue to be successful for Experian only if consumers are happy with the education they receive and recommend the service to others.
Jeremy M. Simon is a reporter and columnist for CreditCards.com, where he writes about credit scoring and reporting, payment card fraud, and economic data for a consumer audience. He also contributes to CreditCards.com's Taking Charge blog.