E-Loan Inc. began giving away a substitute for Fair, Isaac & Co.'s credit scores Monday, a little more than a year after the credit scoring company and Equifax Inc., a credit bureau, cut off data flows to E-Loan to prevent its freely offering the Fair, Isaac scores.
Though Fair, Isaac will still not let E-Loan disclose the credit scores to anyone who asks, E-Loan is trying to sidestep this curb. The substitute scores, which E-Loan says approximate Fair, Isaac's, are generated by CreditXpert Inc. of Hunt Valley, Md., a spinoff of Neuristics LLC.
Along with the free service came some strong words from Chris Larsen, chairman and chief executive officer of Dublin, Calif.-based E-Loan. He said using the proxy score was made necessary by Fair, Isaac's policies.
"Fair, Isaac is still blatantly refusing us access to their scores," Mr. Larsen said.
"They have a monopolistic approach on how people should be informed about their credit. That is why we still need to get national legislation" giving people greater access to their credit records, he added.
Mr. Larsen argued that credit scores should be like stock quotes - free and easily available. "Accessing these scores should be what consumers do to manage their debt," he said.
Craig Watts, a spokesman for Fair, Isaac of San Raphael, Calif., , said that when E-Loan started disclosing credit scores more than a year ago it did so "without consulting Fair, Isaac or the credit bureaus."
He said that E-Loan had signed a standard contract stipulating that Fair, Isaac scores could be given only to people who had been turned down for credit, as a way of explaining the decision. The standard contract was changed last summer to let lenders disclose a credit score during any "genuine application for credit."
But because E-Loan wants to give scores even to people who do not have active credit applications, it cannot use Fair, Isaac scores.
E-Loan began giving people free access to their credit scores through its Web site in February 2000. In the first two months, the company said, more than 25,000 people logged in to get this information. About then, Atlanta-based Equifax asked E-Loan to stop the service. It also warned Credit InfoNet of Davenport, Iowa, the intermediary that was funneling scores from Equifax to E-Loan. But the service continued, and Equifax pulled the plug on both companies.
Shortly after that E-Loan halted the service, and its data flows resumed. Mr. Watts of Fair, Isaac said that E-Loan had not only violated its contracts but also harmed the people it was trying to help. Pulling up a Fair, Isaac score registers as a credit check, which slightly damages the person's score.
"The way E-Loan was pulling the scores a year ago was hurting consumers," Mr. Watts said. "The harm might have been slight, but the consumers were not being told of the harm."
Fair, Isaac also objected to E-Loan's providing scores without credit counseling. Absent counseling, Mr. Watt said, the scores are meaningless to consumers. He said the "proxy" scores being provided by CreditXpert might be "educational for consumers" but are useless from a borrowing standpoint.
"Is anyone using these scores for making credit decisions?" he asked. Jeff Blyskal, an associate editor at Consumer Reports, argued that "consumers should have as much information as possible as long as that information is accurate and meaningful. If E-Loan is providing accurate and meaningful information, we think that everybody should be doing that."
"We don't see any reason that all banks, credit unions, and finances companies across the country can't do that as well," Mr. Blyskal added.
Betsy Imholz, director of Consumers Union's West Coast regional office in San Francisco, said that her organization "absolutely applauds" E-Loan's effort. She noted that Equifax and Fair, Isaac now offer consumers their credit scores for a fee.
"It is very hard to figure out exactly what credit scores mean," Ms. Imholz said. "Any effort to bring more access to consumers is a real step forward."
The California Legislature has passed legislation, to take effect in July, that would give borrowers free access to credit scores when seeking home loans secured by real estate.