Q&A: Repairing your credit score

Dear Liz: After a divorce, I had to start my life over at 62. I got three credit cards. Somehow, I failed to see the online bills for one of them and neglected to pay it. The company didn’t contact me until three months had passed. I got a letter saying the small balance ($130) was forgiven and the card had been canceled. I was shocked. I made several calls but was told nothing could be done. Now one of the credit bureaus has my score at 640. I’m a reliable person and always pay my bills on time. This was a great oversight. Is there anything else I can do?

Answer: Even seemingly small missteps can have outsized effects on your credit scores. Missing even one payment can knock more than 100 points off good scores.

And as you’ve learned, creditors tend not to be sympathetic to the idea that you didn’t pay because you didn’t see the bills. You’re expected to know when your bills are due and pay them. A quick phone call or visit to the credit issuer’s website would have told you what you owed.
Fortunately, you still have the other two cards. Those should help you rehabilitate your credit scores as long as you use them properly and you don’t cause any further damage.

Before another day passes, set up automatic payments for both accounts. You typically can choose to have one of three amounts taken every month from your checking account: the minimum payment, the full balance or a dollar amount that you specify. Ideally, you would choose to pay off the full balance each month, since carrying a balance won’t help your scores and will cause you to pay unnecessary interest.

Mark the dates of the automatic payments on your calendar and set up alerts to make sure that there’s enough money in your checking account on that day.

Use both of your cards lightly but regularly, charging small amounts each month. Don’t use more than about 30% of your available credit — less is better. To rehabilitate your credit scores even faster, consider adding an installment loan to your credit mix, if you don’t already have one. Mortgages, car loans and personal loans are examples of installment loans.

Finally, make sure you don’t fall behind on any other bills or let any account, such as a medical bill, fall into collections. Another black mark would just extend the time it takes to rebuild your scores.

Q&A: Twelve-year old charge-off

Dear Liz: Late last year, I applied for a credit card to buy a new computer on the computer maker’s website. I was declined. I was given the chance to talk to the credit card company’s agent and was belittled for having not-so-perfect credit, not enough credit and using too much credit, all in the same phone call. Needless to say, I got the message. I was also reminded that I’d had a charge-off on a competitor’s card in 1992! I always thought bad credit dropped off after seven years, certainly 10. Maybe you can clarify?

Answer: You need to take a look at your credit reports to see what lenders are seeing.

A charge-off from 1992 should have been removed in 1999, said credit expert John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com. Charge-offs aren’t public records, so there would be no way for a credit card company to know that a competitor wrote your account off as a loss unless it’s still showing on your credit reports.

“This is why it’s a great idea to pull your credit reports from time to time to make sure ancient debts aren’t still on [them],” Ulzheimer said.
If the charge-off is still showing, you should dispute it with the credit bureaus to have it removed.

What might still be a public record is a judgment, if your old creditor filed a lawsuit against you and then took the trouble to renew the judgment to extend how long it could appear on your credit reports.

“That’s a little trick some lawyers play to keep judgments from expiring,” Ulzheimer said. “They’ll re-file them, sometimes in different jurisdictions, and the byproduct is new credit reporting.”

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, civil judgments have to be dropped after seven years unless your state has a longer statute of limitations. If it does, the judgment can be reported until the statute expires. The statute for judgments ranges from three years to 20 years. California’s statute of limitations for judgments is 10 years. Bills.com has a list of state statutes of limitation athttp://www.bills.com/statute-of-limitations-on-debt/. If you find a judgment on your credit report that should have expired, dispute it with the credit bureaus.

You also should remedy the other problems the representative brought up. You need to pay down the balances on the credit accounts you’re using (preferably paying them off in full). Once you’ve done that, consider adding another credit card to your mix — but use it only if you can commit to paying the balance in full each month. Paying your bills on time and responsibly using credit will help you put your “not-so-perfect credit” behind you.

Q&A: Closing credit cards with annual fees

Dear Liz: When I opened my airline-branded credit card almost 10 years ago, it was well worth the $50 annual fee. I was able to book many flights for free because of the miles I earned and the airline’s generous rewards program. However, I moved a few years ago to a location that is not serviced by the airline. Now the airline’s reward card is my “last ditch emergency” card since I have two other cash-back rewards cards that offer a better return (I pay all my cards in full every month).

I know that annual fees on credit cards are not good, but I’m struggling with the decision on whether to keep it or not. It is the second-oldest credit account I have and about a third of the amount of credit I can use, and I am concerned about my credit score dropping if I close it. My credit score is excellent, but I am concerned about how much of a drop in my score this would cause. I did try to “convert it” to a cash-back credit card with no annual fee, but the bank wouldn’t do it. So now I’m stuck on what to do. Should I continue to pay the $50 annual fee to keep my credit score intact, or should I close it and see if I can increase my credit on my other cards?

Answer: Most good travel rewards cards these days charge annual fees, and those fees aren’t a big deal if you’re getting airline tickets or lodging that more than offset the cost. Your card may pay for itself with a single trip if it waives baggage check fees (as many airline-branded cards do).

If you can’t even wring that much value from the card, consider closing it. Given how much of your available credit the card represents, though, you might want to open another card first. Available credit matters far more to your credit scores than the age of your accounts. And even if you close this account, your history with it will continue to be reported for many years, so you shouldn’t hold off just because it’s your second-oldest card.

Does Paying Off Old Debts Help Your Credit Score?

Dear Liz: How can I get a clear and complete picture of the debts that are hurting my credit score? I have my credit report already. I’m a bit lost and I need to get my credit cleared up to buy a home.

Answer: You actually have three credit reports, one at each of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your mortgage lender is likely to request FICO credit scores from each of the three, so you need to check all three reports.

You get your reports for free at one site: http://www.annualcreditreport.com. There are many sites masquerading as this free, federally mandated site, so make sure that you enter the URL correctly. You may be pitched credit scores or other products by the credit bureaus while you’re on this site, but you won’t be required to give a credit card number to get your free reports. (If the site is demanding that you give your credit card number, you’re at the wrong site.)

You should understand that old, unpaid bills may be depressing your scores, but paying them off may not improve those scores. In other words, the damage has been done. You may be able to reduce the impact if you can persuade the collectors to remove the accounts from your reports in exchange for payment, something known in the collections industry as “pay for delete.” But you probably can’t erase the late payments and charge-offs reported by the original creditor before the accounts were turned over to collections, and those earlier marks against you are even more negative than the collection accounts.

That’s not to say you should despair. Over time, your credit scores will improve as you handle credit responsibly. But you shouldn’t expect overnight miracles.

Keep Credit Cards Active Without Slipping Into Debt

Dear Liz: Recently I’ve paid off almost $20,000 in credit card debt and am determined not to go down that path again. Because I haven’t used these cards in a while, though, I’m starting to get notifications from the credit card companies that they’re closing my accounts because of inactivity. I know having long-standing accounts on your credit report is a good thing, but I don’t want to be tempted to use these cards just to keep the account open. Is it a bad thing if almost all of my credit card accounts get closed?

Answer: Your good histories with these cards should remain on your credit reports for years. But if you stop using credit entirely, eventually your credit reports won’t generate credit scores. That could cause you problems if you later want to borrow money (say, to buy a home) and could even affect your insurance premiums, since insurers use credit information as well.

It’s not too hard to keep accounts active without slipping into debt again. Simply set up a bill to be charged automatically to each account, then set up automatic payments with the credit card issuer so the full balance is taken out of your checking account each month.

 

How to pay off your credit card debt

Dear Liz: I’m confused about paying down credit card debt. Some say to pay the lowest-balance cards first and others say the highest balance or the one with the highest interest. I have almost $16,000 on credit cards ranging from a $4,930 balance on a card with an 8.24% interest rate to $660 on a card with an 18% rate.

Answer: Actually, the first question you should ask is “How much credit card debt do I have compared to my income?” If your balances equal half or more of your annual earnings, you may not be able to pay it all off. You should make appointments with a legitimate credit counselor (such as one affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org) and a bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org).

If your situation isn’t that dire, the fastest way out of debt is to pay the minimums on your lower-rate cards and send as much money as possible to your highest-rate card. Once that’s paid off, concentrate on paying off the next-highest-rate card, and so on. Some people instead like to target balances from smallest to largest to get a quicker feeling of victory, but you typically pay more in interest with that approach.

Credit card fraud alerts: don’t be too impressed

Dear Liz: My wife and I have had our bank’s airline cards a long time, but we want to change because it’s become almost impossible to cash in the miles. What I don’t see in various card-comparison articles are ratings of the card issuers for customer service and fraud protection. Our bank has been quite good at both, but what about the other issuers?

Answer: People are often unduly impressed when their credit card issuers contact them frequently about possibly fraudulent charges. The issuers are the only ones at risk in these situations, since under “zero liability” policies you can’t be held responsible for bogus charges. Also, if their software were better, they might do a better job of separating legitimate from fraudulent transactions and have to bother you less.

In any case, it’s tough to tell as a customer how good the issuer’s fraud prevention measures are. So perhaps a better metric to use is customer service, and J.D. Power publishes an annual credit card satisfaction study that tries to gauge six factors: interaction; credit card terms; billing and payment; rewards; benefits and services; and problem resolution. American Express has ranked at the top of the survey every year since it started seven years ago. Discover ranked second for 2013 and Chase ranked third.

Find a better credit card

Dear Liz: One of my credit cards offers mediocre rewards — mainly an online store where I can use points to buy products I don’t really need. I would like a card from the same company that offers better rewards, but this is my oldest credit card and I don’t want to hurt my credit score by closing it. Should I just open a new card and use this one sparingly? Can I call the company to seek better rewards without closing the account? Thanks for any help you can offer.

Answer: If you have plenty of other open accounts, don’t be afraid of closing one occasionally. Most credit issuers continue to report the details of closed accounts to the credit bureaus for years, so your good history with this card will continue to contribute positively to your scores even if you close the account.

With that in mind, you can call the issuer and ask for a better deal, which will usually mean opening a new card. You also can shop for new cards at one of the many card comparison sites, such as NerdWallet, Cardratings.com or Creditcards.com.

Should she use 0% credit card offer to pay student loan debt?

Dear Liz: I currently owe $27,000 in student loans at an 11.5% interest rate. I have excellent credit and about $8,000 in savings and contribute 17% of my income to a workplace retirement plan. Should I invest less in my 401(k) and pay off debt instead? I just got a balance transfer offer for 0% for 15 months with a 3% transaction fee. I’m considering taking $3,000 and putting it toward my high-interest student loan.

Answer: If you had federal student loans, transferring any part of your debt to a credit card would be a bad idea. That’s because federal student loans come with consumer protections that allow you to reduce or even eliminate your payments if you fall on hard economic times. You certainly wouldn’t want to reduce your retirement savings to pay off these flexible, fixed-rate loans.

The higher rate you are paying indicates that you have private student loans, which typically don’t have the same protections and which usually have variable rates that will climb higher when inflation returns.

Credit card debt has similar flaws — plus you would lose the interest rate deduction on any student loans you paid off this way. Instead, you may want to investigate the option of refinancing and consolidating your private student loans with a credit union. Credit unions are member-owned financial institutions that often offer better rates than traditional lenders. One site representing credit unions, CUStudentLoans.org, currently advertises variable rates on consolidation loans that range from just under 5% to just over 7%.

If you continued to make your current payments on a consolidated loan with a lower interest rate, you would be able to pay off your loans years faster — saving on interest without jeopardizing your future retirement.

Close any cards you used at Target during the breach

Dear Liz: My debit card was part of the recent Target data breach (my credit union called me). I’ve read articles telling me to pull my credit reports. Here’s the thing: I already requested two of my three free credit reports in early December. When I read about the Target incident, I requested the third one. So now, if I pull a credit report, I’d have to pay for it. I’m very concerned about this, as my finances are tight.

Answer: The information that was stolen in the Target breach — and immediately put up for sale on black-market sites — is not the kind of personal information that’s typically needed to open new accounts, said John Ulzheimer, credit expert for CreditSesame.com. So buying your credit reports or investing in credit monitoring, which is how you would spot new account fraud, isn’t strictly necessary, he said.

The information that was stolen can be used in what’s known as “account takeover,” which means the bad guys can take over existing accounts and make fraudulent charges. In the case of a debit card, that means they can drain your bank account. With a credit card, you wouldn’t have to pay the fraudulent transactions, but dealing with them could still be a hassle.

Either way, you would be smart to close any debit or credit card used at Target between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, the time of the breach, and ask for a replacement, Ulzheimer said.