Top 5 free sources for checking on the health of your credit

Shady sites have been known to employ bait-and-switch tactics that give you a legitimate credit score ... and a monthly fee if you don't jump through subscription cancellation hoops. Here are five of the best sites to check your credit score and to download your credit report.

Elise Amendola/AP/FIle
Consumer credit cards.

There is a lot of misinformation in the free credit score industry. Shady sites have been known to employ bait-and-switch tactics that give you a legitimate credit score... and a monthly fee if you don't jump through subscription cancellation hoops.

While those scams have largely gone by the wayside, getting your free credit report and score can still seem daunting. Here are five sites we trust, as well as some important terms you'll need to know.

Credit Report vs. Credit Score

First, you must understand the difference between a credit score and a credit report. There are three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Those bureaus each keep a record of the way you use credit — these dossiers are your credit reports. How do those bureaus get that info? They gather data from banks, credit card companies, and public records.

Your credit score is basically a summary of your credit report from one of these bureaus in numerical form. That gives your potential mortgage company or cell phone provider a quick way to determine your creditworthiness. The number is based on major factors such as payment history, bad marks on your credit report, the length of your credit history, the number of accounts held, and credit utilization.

Too Many Credit Scores to Count

Credit scores have taken on a life of their own. Even the major credit bureaus don't stick to a single score. They provide different scores for different situations — scores that can change, depending on what they're trying to convey.

FICO is the most well-known and widely used score. All scoring models apply the same basic information, they just weight things a bit differently. This can lead to slight differences between scores — usually just a few points, but the range could be closer to 30.

These variations certainly make things confusing for consumers, but the differences are usually minor enough that you don't need to fret.

The Top Sites to Get Your Free Credit Score

There's been a recent trend of companies offering access to your credit score for free to try and win your business. And most provide reputable, widely used scores. A few, however, stand above the rest in terms of easy use and universal availability. Since your bank might not be offering you free access, here are four great sites to visit:

Credit Scorecard
Discover runs this site, but it's available to you even if you don't have an account with the company. It provides your FICO Score based on data from Experian.

Credit Karma
This site changed the credit score game when it launched 10 years ago. Credit Karma gives you two scores side by side, one from TransUnion and the other from Equifax. It also has great tools to help you understand why your credit score is what it is and how you can improve it.

Credit Sesame
Credit Sesame followed Credit Karma down the path of reputable free credit score delivery in 2010. The score it provides is from TransUnion, and the site also has good tools to help you with your credit.

Capital One CreditWise
Capital One offers you a free look at your TransUnion VantageScore. Fortunately, you don't need to have an account with the bank/credit card provider to sign up. Most of the features it serves up are like the ones above, with one exception: CreditWise has a simulator that can help you run numbers on how specific credit moves will impact your overall score. It'll also be happy to pitch you certain relevant products... like credit cards.

There's Only One Place to Get Your Free Credit Report

There's really just one place online where you can get your credit report for free. AnnualCreditReport.com is the only website that provides that information, per federal law, at no cost. Don't buy what anyone else is selling. You can get your credit report from each of the three major bureaus once each year, and it will cost you absolutely nothing.

A good strategy for checking your credit is to pull a single report from a different bureau every four months. That way, you'll have an update on what your credit reports look like more frequently. If you pull all three on the same day, you'll have to wait a full year to check again.

Will Checking Your Score Hurt Your Credit?

The inquiries that you'll be doing through the websites listed above are considered "soft inquiries." Those sorts of credit checks won't affect your score. "Hard inquiries" are usually initiated by mortgage lenders and credit card issuers. Those types of inquiries will ding your score, although the effect is small.

This story originally appeared on DealNews.

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