Citigroup partners with FICO to provide credit scores to its customers.

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Up until only a few months ago, consumers were largely in the dark when it came to the credit score information that big banks and credit card companies used to make decisions about their own customers. But that all changed last November when the Fair Isaac Company, known as FICO, rolled out a program encouraging banks to provide free credit scores to their own customers. The initiative received a huge boost in legitimacy recently as Citigroup announced that they would participate and partner with FICO.

Citigroup is the fourth-largest issuer of credit cards by volume in the U.S., and will start providing their customers with their credit scores starting in January, probably via their monthly statements and online. While people can request one copy of their credit report for free every year from FICO, Citi customers will now be able to see the actual score that is reporting to Citi, which they use to make lending decisions. That’s significant because prior to this program, they were somewhat in the dark how and why credit card companies and banks made their lending decisions, and only could access their score if denied for a mortgage.

Since FICO rolled out the program, several notable banks have signed up to participate, though Citi is by far the largest. They started with Barclaycard, a unit of Barclays , and First National Bank of Omaha, a unit of First National of Nebraska, giving scoring access to about 8 million U.S. consumers, then enrolled Discover Financial Services ; SLM Corp., the largest private student-loan lender, better known as Sallie Mae; and Pentagon Federal Credit Union, the third-largest credit union. With the addition of Citi, FICO expects to offer their regular scoring service to up to 32 million consumers.

This comes on the tail of a federal government push to have lenders provide credit scores to their customers. In February, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent a letter to the largest banks and credit card companies asking them to start the practice. Even President Barack Obama put his weight behind the push, signing an executive order to help protect consumers’ financial security, among other things, in an effort to increase transparency in credit scoring.

Discover Card, the 6th largest card issuer in the U.S., got on board in November, the biggest credit card to date, until Citi just came to the FICO table. The move by Citi leads to hopes that others from the “Big Five,” – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, American Express, or Capitol One, will soon follow.

So how is this expected to help consumers? Since banks and credit card issuers check credit scores of existing cardholders to determine whether to extend them more credit, increase interest rates, etc., it’s important that people have access to the same information so they can manage their credit and financial picture. In fact, lenders use FICO scores in 90% of lending decisions. Getting a monthly snapshot of your credit score will also afford them the opportunity to check their credit report for errors and identity theft. It’s estimated that only one in five Americans check their credit report any give year, and identity theft or big data theft affects more people than ever, possibly up to 12% of the population or more. And errors, outdated or duplicate information, and inconsistencies appear on an alarming 20% of credit reports.

But critics point to a few flaws that may slow down the intended effect. Citi customers will only know where they stand with that one lender, not have access to their complete credit score and report across the board. FICO scores may also vary by lender because the three major credit reporting firms, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, all report separately. Furthermore, there are more than 45 types of FICO scores available to lenders, and currently most banks and credit card issuers take into account a consumer’s Vantage Score, not FICO score.

But financial analyst and consumer advocates see Citi’s teamwork with FICO as a huge step in the right direction, with more to come.


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