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Free Credit Score? Not Necessarily. Credit Bureaus Busted for Deception

The days of the singing band in pirate hats pitching "free" credit reports may be gone, but credit bureau marketing skulduggery is still sailing.

On Tuesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered two of the biggest credit bureaus, TransUnion and Equifax, to pay a total of $5.5 million in fines and give $17.6 million in refunds to customers.

The chief consumer regulatory agency said the two companies had falsely advertised credit scores for sale that they intimated were the same ones used by lenders. But they weren't.

Related: Easy Ways to Raise Your Credit Score

FICO credit scores are a proprietary product that assign a score from 300-850 based on a combination of the credit history from each of the three major credit bureaus. Credit bureaus have to pay a fee to FICO when they sell a credit score so by developing and selling their own score they can keep more of the profits.

The CFPB also said the two companies lured consumers into signing up for credit score programs and credit-related products that were "free" or "$1." In fact, after an initial trial, consumers were enrolled in an auto-renewing subscription of $16 or more.

TransUnion spokesman David Blumberg said in a statement "that our consumer marketing has been clear and has complied with the law and other government guidance."

In a statement Equifax spokeswoman Ines Gutzmer said the company had changed some of its practices but "does not believe it has violated any laws."

Nothing Is Free

Consumers should know there is no completely free place to get your literal FICO credit score. Zero. There are, however, some credit card companies which offer FICO scores as a cardmember benefit. Others will give you a score in exchange for supplying your personal information.

But you are entitled to get one free credit report each year from each of the three bureaus at annualcreditreport.com.

Online sites CreditKarma and CreditSesame will give free credit scores based on one of the three bureaus reports that are very close to the FICO score. For most people that's good enough for general monitoring.

If you're shopping for a home where a few points could impact the kind of mortgage you can get, it's worth getting the actual FICO score. You can either get that by paying up, or through a service that gives you access to your credit score as a customer benefit, like Discover, Capital One, or Walmart.

Just make sure you're not enticed into overextending your credit while you're checking on it.