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Consumer Watch: Military financial managers grant free FICO scores

May. 20, 2011 - 02:57PM   |   Last Updated: May. 20, 2011 - 02:57PM  |  
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An Army colonel in Iraq wrote in with questions about why troops and family members must contact personal financial managers on military installations to get the free credit scores being offered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

He noted that this policy effectively shuts out service members who are deployed.

But FINRA has been trying to get the word out that those who aren't near a military installation can email creditscore@finra.org">creditscore@finra.org for assistance.

Col. Mark C. Boussy subsequently did send an email.

"FINRA responded right away to my requests," he said. He received a code allowing him to provide access for his soldiers. He said it was simple to navigate the program.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees all Americans access to three free credit reports a year, one from each of the national credit reporting agencies, http://www.annualcreditreport.com">when you visit this website.

FINRA goes beyond that for the military community and recently began providing the free FICO score, which is compiled using information from those credit reporting agencies. It's the score used by most banks and lenders to decide whether to loan you money, and at what interest rate.

Boussy expressed concerns about troops having to take all these steps. Why not make it easier for service members to get their free credit scores — perhaps with a single click on a link?

FINRA's target audience for providing these free credit scores is troops and spouses who could benefit from its use, such as those with debt problems, said John Gannon, FINRA's senior vice president for investor education.

The goal is for troops to use the tool — FICO credit scores and the educational information and tools in the FICO Standard product — with help from a personal financial manager on the installation who can also provide personalized advice on how to improve their financial situation.

When a service member is already in "a world of debt," Boussy said, his credit score may seem irrelevant. "They are just trying to put food on the table until the next paycheck," he said.

In addition, he said, those in financial trouble may not seek help for fear that it will get back to their commander.

He said the goal of the program should be for all service members — especially young troops who have not had financial difficulties — to know, understand and follow their credit scores.

It's a funding issue that keeps FINRA from offering the free credit scores to all troops, Gannon said. "Unfortunately, it's expensive for us," he said.

The tool normally costs about $19.95 per credit score. A few years ago, when FINRA offered a similar program through another organization, about 75,000 service members used it, he said.

A recent FINRA survey shows that a high percentage of service members know their credit score; 67 percent had received their credit score within the previous 12 months, Gannon said.

FINRA leaves it up to the personal financial managers on installations to decide whether to offer troops the free product, Gannon said.

He noted that troops and family members don't have to visit their personal financial manager to get the credit score. PFMs can provide remote access as long as they have an email address, he said.

Gannon said Boussy's input has been helpful, and has led him to try to make it easier for people deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to use the program. FINRA is encouraging more PFMs to provide the program at pre-deployment briefings; FINRA can provide group access codes for such venues.

"Obviously, when you're over in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's not the time you want to find out you have problems," he said.

One Army captain said his installation's family center wasn't aware of the program when he called to find out information for troops in his unit. FINRA worked with that installation to make sure the information is available.

If your installation isn't aware of the free program — or if you're not near an installation — email creditscore@finra.org">creditscore@finra.org.

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