Credit Karma is a Web site known mostly for the fact that it offers free credit scores, and was one of the first sites to do so. In the past, when free credit scores seemed only to be a come-on to trick you into some sort of credit monitoring subscription service, many people wondered if Credit Karma was legitimate or just another scam pulling a bait-and-switch. However, then as now, Credit Karma does offer free credit scores with no real strings attached, other than the fact that they most definitely want to use those scores as an entry point to other things.
In our eyes, Credit Karma asks for too much personal information before it will give you your free credit score. We’d suggest you look at other ways to get your free credit score (including FICO scores) before giving up so much info to Credit Karma. These days there are a ton of free options out there.
See, Credit Karma makes its money by providing leads to other financial companies, with credit cards being the big fish. If you’ve just looked up your credit score at Credit Karma, you might be in the market for a credit card, yes? So, if you ever wondered how Credit Karma could give free credit scores, you can be sure they are making more than enough money on the back end to make those scores a simple marketing cost. And the best way to sell you on other financial products is to get as much of your personal information as possible, more than they really need. But we’ll get back to that.
First, let’s talk about those scores. Credit Karma offers you VantageScore credit scores based on data from two of the major credit reporting agencies, TransUnion and Equifax. (The other credit bureau is Experian, which does not offer scores via Credit Karma.) These scores are not necessarily the same scores that any actual lender will use. First off, many/most lenders use FICO scores in determining loan approvals; these are not FICO scores. (FICO has its own formula different from VantageScore. VantageScore is a competing credit score devised by the credit reporting agencies themselves.) Second, every lender uses a different variation of a credit score in making their approval decisions — for example, some might weigh their scores more heavily based on your on-time payments while others could have a heavier focus on how much outstanding debt you have.
However, none of this is to say that the Credit Karma scores don’t have value. They do. But that value is more in understanding how you are progressing over time: is your credit score going up, going down, why has it changed, how can you improve it? The precise number isn’t as important as understanding at least vaguely how you are likely doing in the eyes of a lender. No one can tell you for sure exactly what your credit score is to a specific lender. So don’t interpret a Credit Karma score or any credit score as the final word. Lenders have the final say on what credit score they use and what credit score it takes to get a credit card, auto loan, mortgage, etc. Still, it is good to track your progress and get a feel for how likely it is you’d qualify for various loans.
Now, back to our beef with Credit Karma. They want a lot of personal information before they give you that free credit score. Most galling to us is that they force you to give your cell phone number and your annual income to get the goods. For us, that’s too much, too aggressive. A free credit score can be provided with basic name, address and Social Security information — the income and phone number information is just a grab to sell you stuff in the future.
Bottom line: Credit Karma credit scores are free, but they definitely want something in exchange. It’s up to you to decide how much you’re willing to give.