WASHINGTON — Consumers soon might have easier access to their credit scores after federal regulators sent letters urging credit card companies to strongly consider including the information at no cost online and on monthly statements.

“Credit reports and scores can determine the terms of people’s mortgages, whether they qualify for auto loans or if they are eligible for different credit cards,” said Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency that sent the letters. “Making consumers’ credit scores freely available on their monthly statement or online makes it easier for them to spot problems with their credit report.”

Consumers already can review their credit standing by looking up their free annual credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com, but Cordray said fewer than 1 in 5 Americans checked their credit reports in any given year. And the reports don’t include free credit scores; those three-digit summaries of your credit report used by lenders often must be purchased separately.

If consumers don’t check their reports or scores regularly, they might miss errors or evidence of identity theft in the reports that could hurt their chances to buy houses or cars, secure new jobs, take out small business loans or rent apartments.

“Consumers often learn the importance of their credit standing when it is too late: after a credit application is denied or identity theft has had time to cause extensive damage,” Cordray said Thursday.

That’s why the bureau is calling on credit card companies to make credit scores “more easily and regularly available” for free, he said.

Cordray said he had sent letters and followed up with phone calls to CEOs of the country’s major credit card companies, “strongly encouraging them to consider making credit scores and educational content freely available to their customers on a regular basis.”

Several companies already offer free FICO credit scores to customers, including Discover, First National Bank of Omaha and Barclays.

The banking industry’s reaction ranged from wariness to outright frustration.

Although the consumer bureau appears to be approaching banks informally, the pressure is on financial institutions to respond, said Richard Hunt, the president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association.

“No institution that receives a letter from its regulatory agency ‘strongly encouraging’ an action views the request benignly,” Hunt said in a statement.

Consumer advocates applauded the voluntary initiative, though they’d like to see the disclosure of credit scores become required by law.

“It’s a big deal,” said Ed Mierzwinski, the federal consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, a consumer group. “Too many consumers have ended up paying too much money for monthly credit score-monitoring services that the credit bureaus sell, and if we can get them to consumers for free, fewer consumers will pay $15 or $20 per month to get the credit score.”