Q&A: Effects of closing credit card accounts

Dear Liz: I would like to know how to close credit card accounts and not get a bad credit rating for doing so. We are trying to improve our credit after filing for bankruptcy seven years ago.

Answer: If you’re trying to improve your credit, then avoid closing credit accounts. Doing so can’t help your scores and may hurt them. Credit-scoring formulas are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using. The formulas like to see a wide gap between your credit limits and the amount you charge, both on individual cards and in the aggregate. When you close an account, you reduce your available credit, which narrows that gap and can ding your scores.

If you want to speed up your recovery from the bankruptcy, continue using the cards lightly but regularly and paying the balances in full every month. Make sure to pay all your bills on time so that a skipped payment doesn’t undo all the progress you’ve made. Review your credit reports and dispute any errors, including accounts that were included in the bankruptcy but are still showing up as active debts.

That doesn’t mean you can never close unwanted credit accounts. You just don’t want to do so now, or when you’re in the market for a major loan. You can close an account or two once your scores are in the high 700s on the 300-to-850 FICO scale and you don’t plan to apply for credit in the near future.

Q&A: The ins and outs of credit scores

Dear Liz: I’ve been using a free credit site to learn more about credit reports and credit scores. Recently I looked around and found reviews about how “horribly inaccurate” these free scores are. Where can I go to find my real FICO credit scores? I need the ones that matter, the ones that lenders use.

Answer: Some free scores aren’t used by any lenders. But many sites these days give out VantageScores, a FICO rival that’s being used in a growing number of credit decisions. So VantageScores are “real” scores, just not the most commonly used scores.

Here’s the thing, though: You generally can’t predict which scores a lender will use. Not only are there different name brands, but FICO offers versions customized for certain types of lending. The scores typically used by credit card issuers are different from the ones used by auto lenders, for example. These industry-specific FICO scores are on a 250-to-900 scale, rather than the 300-to-850 scale used by other FICO scores.

There are also different generations of each type of score, much like the different operating systems for your computer. Some lenders quickly upgrade to the latest version, just as some computer users upgraded to Windows 10 when it came out. Others use older versions of the scores, just as users may cling to Vista or XP. (For you Mac users, that would be something like hanging on to Mountain Lion or Snow Leopard instead of updating to El Capitan.)

Mortgage lenders, in particular, use relatively old versions of FICO. That’s because the agencies that buy most home loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, haven’t updated their requirements so that lenders can use newer versions.

Some credit card companies offer their customers free FICO scores, typically from one bureau. You can get a glimpse of the array of scores lenders might use by buying the most commonly used FICO, the FICO 8, for about $20 each from MyFico.com. Along with each FICO 8 you buy (you can buy three, one from each of the three major credit bureaus), you’ll get additional versions used for auto, credit card and mortgage lending.

If you’re going to be in the market for a major loan, such as a car loan or a mortgage, it makes sense to buy your FICOs so you can get a better idea of how lenders might view you. If you’re just interested in tracking your scores generally, though, the free versions can be perfectly adequate.

Q&A: Cashing out an IRA to pay off credit card debt

Dear Liz: I owe about $49,000 on my credit cards and now have the money to pay them off in full. Should I? Or should I slowly pay them in large amounts?

Answer:
There’s typically no reason to delay paying off credit card debt. Carrying balances costs you money and doesn’t help your credit scores. You’ll see the fastest improvement if you pay them off in one fell swoop.

The only excuse for delaying would be if this windfall comes from a retirement fund. Cashing out a 401(k) account or IRA to pay off debt is not wise, since you’ll trigger huge taxes and penalties. Add in the future tax-deferred compounding you lose and the total cost is far more than you’ll save in interest.

Q&A: Purchase protection

Dear Liz: A few months ago, I purchased a large television from a nearby store. I was offered no interest for 12 months using the store’s credit card. The TV was stolen from the back of my pickup truck before I was able to bring it into my apartment. I called the police and filed a report. The next day I returned to the store and asked if anything could be done. They said they could only offer another television for a discounted price. I wrote to the credit company and they responded that it wasn’t up to them and any deals would have to be made with the store, which I did not return to. I have since made small payments on the loan, and will expect to pay if off in a few months with no problem. The remaining amount is just over $900. My question is, how bad would it affect my credit score if I simply decided not to pay the balance? Currently, I have a great score. My only other debt is for another television I purchased.

Answer: Failing to pay what you owe will trash your credit, because a single missed payment can knock more than 100 points off good scores. You’ll lose more points the longer the bill goes unpaid and suffer additional damage when the account is turned over for collections.

A better approach is to pay what you owe and resolve to stop borrowing to buy televisions. Instead, use a credit card that reimburses you for such losses and then pay off the balance in full by the due date.

As you’ve discovered, store cards often don’t offer this “purchase protection” that kicks in if an item is lost, damaged or stolen. Purchase protection is a free benefit that comes with higher-end credit cards and shouldn’t be confused with overpriced paid add-ons such as “credit protection.” Check your current cards to see if any offer this feature. If none of your cards do, use your good credit to get one that does and use it in the future for all large purchases.

Q&A: Credit card billing errors

Dear Liz: I have a dispute with a credit card company over an online transaction that I canceled. The company charged me three times but refunded only one of those charges. The credit card company initially canceled the other two transactions but I was rebilled without my knowledge. Despite my submitting evidence and the card company agreeing that I don’t owe the money, it will not take the charge off. Who do I contact to get this settled? When I call the card company, they say they will look into this and contact me in 10 days, which they never do.

Answer: It’s convenient to dispute credit card billing errors over the phone. If you want to preserve your rights under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, though, you need to put your complaint in writing.

Your letter should be sent to the address given for billing inquiries, rather than the address where you send your payment, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The letter needs to include your name, address and account number along with a description of the problem. You should send copies of any receipts or other documents that back up your case. The letter should be mailed in time to reach the creditor no later than 60 days after the statement with the error was generated. The letter should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested.

That’s a cumbersome process, and often not necessary for people who monitor their statements and catch a problem early. Ideally, they first would contact the merchant and give it a chance to correct the problem. If the merchant doesn’t do so within a few days, the customer can contact the credit card company and give it time — say, 30 days — to resolve the situation. If that doesn’t work, then the customer can fire off a letter.

Even if you’re now outside the 60-day window, you should still send a letter and ask for a prompt response. If you don’t get one, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which intervenes with credit card companies to resolve such disputes.

Q&A: Authorized credit card users

Dear Liz: I have read that only the primary cardholder is responsible for the balance on a credit card, not the authorized user (such as a spouse). When that primary cardholder dies, there is no obligation for an authorized user to pay off the balance. Is this accurate? What would prevent someone whose primary cardholder is near death from racking up purchases and then, after the primary cardholder dies, refusing to pay it?

Answer: In a community property state such as California, spouses typically are both responsible for debts incurred during the marriage. In all states, the deceased spouse’s estate would have to pay all creditors before any leftover money was doled out to survivors. So a spouse who went on such a spending binge wouldn’t come out ahead, unless the primary cardholder was broke and left no estate.

Other authorized users might have no such restraints, however. Anyone who thinks an authorized user might pull such a stunt would be smart to take that person off the card before it becomes an issue.

Q&A: Credit reports for the deceased

Dear Liz: How does one get credit reports for someone who is dead? My deceased husband is still on my mortgage and I’d like to review his report to make sure it is correct. The estate went through probate, so I have court documents showing I am the executor. I looked at credit bureau websites and attempted to contact them by phone but have not been able to determine what information they need or where it should be sent.

Answer: The only thing that needs to be correct about your husband’s credit reports is the fact that he’s dead. Any other mistakes are irrelevant at this point, but his identity can still be stolen if the bureaus don’t know he’s deceased.

This is no small issue. About 2 million dead people have their identities stolen every year, either because they’ve been deliberately targeted or because criminals filling out credit applications used made-up Social Security numbers that happen to match those of people who have died, according to a 2012 study by research firm ID Analytics.

Eventually, the credit bureaus should get word of a death. Bureaus periodically check the Social Security death master file, which is a database of all the deaths reported to the agency. Lenders also notify the bureaus when they receive information that someone has died.

Just to make sure, though, you should notify the bureaus directly. Ask that a “deceased alert” be added to his files. Send death certificates — the real thing, not photocopies — by certified mail, return receipt requested. The addresses to use include:

TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022
Experian, P.O. Box 2002, Allen, TX 75013
Equifax, P.O. Box 740260, Atlanta, GA 30374

Q&A: Credit card useage

Dear Liz: I recently refinanced my home and one of the perks was a 0% interest credit card. The problem is that I have two credit cards and I am happy with them, but I am afraid that having a third will adversely affect my credit score. I have no plans to borrow money in the near future but I can’t shake the feeling that it is a detriment to have the card. I haven’t activated the new card and I never carry a balance on either of the older cards I use. What do you advise?

Answer: The new card affects your credit reports and scores whether or not you activate it. Chances are good, though, that the overall effect will be positive.

Yes, your scores may have been dinged a few points when the new card was issued, but over time responsibly handling multiple credit cards will help, not hurt, your numbers.

Failing to use the card, on the other hand, could cause the issuer to close it, and that could negatively affect your scores.

Just do what you do with your other cards: Charge lightly (no more than about 30% of the card’s limit) and pay the bill on time and in full. There’s no credit score advantage to carrying debt.

Q&A: Paying for credit repair

Dear Liz: I’m seeking help in reviewing my credit report and how to fix any issues. I am not financially distressed, but have FICO scores in the 675 range. Could you recommend someone I can hire to assist as I need to refinance a house I bought for cash?

Answer: There’s so much fraud in the credit repair industry that you’re likely better off doing it yourself rather than exposing yourself to rip-offs.

Credit repair companies aren’t supposed to take money upfront or promise things they can’t deliver, but many do.

One of the scammers’ most common ploys is to flood the credit bureau with disputes and to take credit for any negative information that temporarily disappears. By the time the negative information pops back up on the file, the scam artists have disappeared with your money.

Another approach they recommend is starting over with a “clean” slate, sometimes using borrowed or stolen identification numbers. That’s fraud, and even if it works, you’ll often find yourself worse off with no credit history than with a flawed history.

The Federal Trade Commission has some helpful advice on do-it-yourself credit repair.

You’ll need to first get copies of your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus, which you can do once a year for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. Dispute any inaccurate information, such as collection accounts that aren’t yours or late payments that you made on time.

Follow up with any creditors that persist in reporting bogus information.

One relatively fast way to improve your scores is to pay down any credit card debt to 10% or less of the accounts’ credit limits. Don’t close any accounts while trying to improve your scores, since that won’t help your score and could hurt.

Opening new accounts can ding your scores as well, but it can be worth it to add another credit card to the mix if you only have one or two.

Q&A: Credit scores and new accounts

Dear Liz: My spouse signed up for a store credit card to receive a discount on a large purchase. As she has no strong interest in maintaining a line of credit there, is there a simple way of discontinuing this account without affecting our credit scores, given that we may apply for a mortgage in the near future?

If not, is it critical we maintain some frequency of use on this account?

Answer: First, let’s correct a popular misconception that marriage somehow combines your credit records. Assuming she applied for the card in her name alone, this account won’t show up on your credit report or affect your scores.

Should you apply for a mortgage together, however, her scores could affect the interest rate and terms you get. Opening and closing accounts can ding scores, so it’s best to avoid both when you’re in the market for a major loan.

Issuers vary in their policies on closing inactive accounts, so it’s hard to predict how much activity would prevent the card from being shut down. Typically, though, a small charge every two to three months is enough to keep an account open.