The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Monday, May 20, 2024

1 in 4 Americans Believe Checking Their Credit Hurts Their Credit Scores

1 In 4 Americans Believe Checking Their Credit Is Harmful
John Ulzheimer

Written by: John Ulzheimer

John Ulzheimer
John Ulzheimer

John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. The author of four books on the subject, Ulzheimer has been featured thousands of times in media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, New York Times, CNBC, and countless others. With over 30 years of credit-related professional experience, including with both Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only recognized credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 600 credit-related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit. In his hometown of Atlanta, Ulzheimer is a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Georgia and Emory University's School of Law.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro
Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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Reviewed by: Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker
Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker has more than a decade of experience as a finance contributor and editor, and has specialized in the credit card industry since 2015. Her credit card commentary is featured on national media outlets that include CNBC, MarketWatch, Investopedia, and Reader's Digest, among many others. She has worked closely with the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, up-and-coming fintech companies, and press and news outlets to curate comprehensive content and media. Ashley holds a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University.

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Opinions expressed here are ours alone, and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by any issuer. Our articles follow strict editorial guidelines and are updated regularly.

Since the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, or “FACTA”, Americans have enjoyed the right to free annual copies of our credit reports. Now that it has been 20 years since we’ve had the right to freebies, it’s reasonable to expect most credit-conscious consumers to understand how pulling their own credit reports will impact their credit scores. 

But according to a recent survey commissioned by CardRates, 25% of consumers believe checking their own credit reports will hurt their scores.

You can look at these results and walk away feeling happy that 75% of consumers do not believe checking their scores will hurt their scores. Or you can feel disappointed that 25% of consumers are probably worried about checking their own credit for fear it will lead to lower scores and may avoid doing so as a result.

The credit bureaus don’t publish the number of free credit reports they disclose on an annual basis. What we do know is that it is free to check your own credit reports once a week, forever, according to a recent announcement by the credit bureaus.

Checking Your Credit Does Not Affect Your Credit Scores

Thankfully, the 25% of survey respondents who say they believe checking their own credit reports will hurt their score are incorrect. The reason checking your own credit won’t hurt your scores has to do with the variety of credit inquiries that are posted by the credit bureaus.

Checking credit scores survey stat

When someone —  including yourself — accesses your credit reports, the credit reporting agencies post what’s referred to as a credit inquiry. The credit inquiry is essentially a notation indicating the date and the name of the party that pulled your report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires credit bureaus to disclose to consumers the identification of each party that procured their credit reports for between one and two years, depending on the nature of the inquiry.

The type of inquiry that is posted when you pull your own reports is a “soft” inquiry. Soft inquiries are entirely benign. They are not seen by lenders if they pull your credit reports or by credit scoring models during the scoring process. Soft inquiries are only seen by you when you check your own credit reports.

Essentially, due to the nature of soft inquiries, the only person who knows you pulled your credit reports is you.

Types of Credit Inquiries That Might Affect Credit Scores

To be clear, some inquiries can affect your credit scores. Those inquiries are generally referred to as “hard” inquiries. Hard inquiries are usually the result of you applying for some form of credit, like a loan or a credit card. Credit scoring models can see and consider hard inquiries during the scoring process, and they may (or may not) result in a lower score.

Types of credit inquries

Having said that, even if an inquiry or inquiries is/are impacting your credit scores, it’s minimal and almost not worth discussing. It’s been my experience that consumers (and credit repair companies) often ascribe inflated importance to inquiries rather than focusing on the more meaningful metrics, like payment history and debt management, in credit scoring models.

In FICO’s credit scoring models, for example, inquiries are only one part of the scoring category that’s worth only 10% of the points in your scores. That means inquiries are worth, at most, a small portion of 10% of your score points. There are certainly bigger fish to fry if you’re actively trying to improve your credit scores. 

FICO score factors

Focusing on inquiries is often counterproductive, especially because they’re simply a factual record of access into your credit reports. 

Pulling your own credit reports from authorized sources, including AnnualCreditReport.com or the credit bureaus’ own websites, will always result in soft inquiries.

But if you have a friend who works for a mortgage broker or a car dealership and they pull your credit reports as a favor, the world is going to think you’re applying for either a mortgage loan or a car loan because of the inquiry type. Those will also be hard inquiries, and they may result in lower credit scores. The point here is to stick with authorized sources of credit reports.

How to Check Your Credit Scores 

There are ways you can check your credit reports and ways you can check your credit scores, and they’re not always the same methods. To the extent you want to check your credit reports, the aforementioned website AnnualCreditReport.com is the best way to do so.

In my experience, that website is, by far, the most cited authorized source of credit reports.  

Now, if you want to check your credit scores, you have many methods to do so. If you have credit cards, especially cards from major card issuers, they likely participate in FICO’s Open Access program. That program allows the card issuer to give their cardholders their FICO scores monthly at no cost.

Screenshot of the American Express MyCredit Guide website
Several card issuers, including American Express, provide free credit scores through FICO’s Open Access Program.

But there are certainly other places where you can safely pull your credit scores and leave behind harmless soft inquiries. All three of the credit bureaus will happily either sell you or give you free FICO or VantageScore credit scores via their websites.

And, if you don’t mind spending a little money, you can get several dozen of your FICO scores (yes, you have several dozen FICO scores) through the FICO website here.

If you’re on the fence about whether to check your FICO scores or your VantageScore credit scores, allow me to provide a little advice. Check both!

FICO scores are still certainly the most commonly used score brand in the US credit market. But VantageScore credit scores, which are built by the credit bureaus, are certainly gaining market share traction and will soon be used for all mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And it doesn’t cost you anything but time because they’re all free.

Check Your Credit Frequently

Checking your credit reports and scores from authorized sources will have no impact on your credit scores. And by doing so frequently, you will be as knowledgeable about your credit status as your current and prospective lenders are, which is certainly an empowering position.

If 75% of consumers understand that checking their credit will not hurt their scores, then we’ve certainly come a long way. Before 2003, only a handful of states had laws providing their residents with the right to free credit reports, and those had to be requested by mail. 

Now that credit report disclosures — those that will only result in benign soft inquiries — will be permanently free on a weekly basis to over 200 million people in the US, there’s really no reason not to become actively engaged in our credit reports.