My book is out! Get it for free.

DWYD cover2013Deal with Your Debt” is now available, and I’m giving away five copies this week.

To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page).

Click on the tab above the post that says “comments.” Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.

If you haven’t commented before, it may take a little while for your comment to show up since comments are moderated.

The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.

Also, check back here often for other giveaways.

The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!

So is it pointless to try to fix credit report errors?

Credit Check 1Dear Liz: I watched 60 Minutes last night regarding the 3 credit bureaus and was amazed at what I learned.  I was hoping to spend time trying to repair our credit score, but according to the report last evening, it sounds like a total waste of time as the three credit bureaus basically are not accountable to anyone and they very rarely take action in your defense.  Was this a one-sided view?

Answer: The credit bureaus would tell you yes, but the answer is way more complicated than that.

The show reported that 40 million Americans have errors on their credit reports. That’s about one in five U.S. adults covered by the credit bureau industry. About half (one in 10) have errors serious enough to hurt their credit scores.

(Update: A Federal Trade Commission report released today said one in four had at least one “potentially material error” on at least one of their three credit reports and that one in 20 consumers had significant errors on their credit reports that could cause them to pay more loans.)

That’s a pretty high error rate, but an even bigger problem is that the process to fix mistakes is almost completely automated and structured to favor the data provider (the banks, lenders and others supplying information) over the consumer. Here’s how the Ohio attorney general described it:

“The federal law says that if you believe that there is a mistake, you can go to them and they have an obligation to do a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing a reasonable investigation. They’re not doing an investigation at all.”

The show interviewed former bureau employees in Chile who confirmed what others have reported: that their jobs were to assign two-digit codes to the complaints. That’s it. Then the complaints are forwarded to the lenders and other data providers for response.

People can and do get errors fixed if the data provider acknowledges the error or simply fails to respond to the credit bureaus’ queries. If the data provider continues to insist it’s right, however, it’s pretty tough (if not impossible) to get the bureaus to step in.

That’s how people get caught in seemingly endless cycles of disputing mistakes only to have them reappear, or never disappear, from their reports.

The credit bureaus, which apparently turned down opportunities to respond on camera, now point to a study by the Policy and Economic Research Council that found 95% of consumers were satisfied with the outcome of their disputes. The study was paid for by a grant from the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents the credit bureaus.

It’s not exactly pointless try to fix errors. The FTC report said four out of five people who dispute errors get results. You should still try, and you may well find it’s possible, but you should plan to be tenacious if your initial efforts are rebuffed. (You should get your free credit reports directly from www.annualcreditreport.com. Don’t go to other, lookalike sites, some of which are owned by the credit bureaus but that aren’t the federally-mandated site that gets you your free reports.)

You should also support efforts by regulators and consumer advocates to require the credit bureaus to put a more responsive system in place.

Does giving up your land line hurt your credit scores?

Dear Liz: I recently heard that not having a land-line home phone number can hurt your credit score because it indicates instability. Is this true? I, like many people, use only my cellphone and no longer have a land line.

Answer: The answers to most credit scoring questions are complex because the formulas are complex. In this case, though, the answer is simple. What kind of phone you use is not a factor in your credit scores.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports, which typically doesn’t include information from telephone companies unless you’re applying for a new account (in which case a credit inquiry may appear) or seriously delinquent in paying your bills (in which case a collection account may appear).

Lenders typically use other criteria in addition to your credit score to evaluate your application. Those criteria may include your income, your debt-to-income ratio, how long you’ve worked for your current employer and other information that’s not part of the credit scoring formulas. So it’s conceivable a lender might prefer people who have land lines, but with so many people using cellphones only, that lender would certainly be behind the times.

Low car loan rate could have been lower

Dear Liz: I recently bought a new car, and the dealer, after running a credit check, told me my Experian score was 783. I have had only credit cards and no loans. This is my first auto loan. They gave me a 3.5% interest rate and I took it reluctantly. I do not like the rate and the need to pay huge interest over time, and am considering paying off the loan as soon as possible as there are no pre-payment penalties. If I am able to pay off my loan in a couple of months (instead of the original five-year loan term), will this improve or adversely affect my credit score? How will this look in the eyes of future lenders?

Answer: Paying off debt is a good thing, both for your credit scores and your wallet. The leading FICO credit scoring formula likes to see a big gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using. This is particularly true with revolving accounts, such as credit cards, but your scores also get a boost from paying down installment debt, such as auto loans and mortgages.

By the way, a 3.5% rate isn’t bad and wouldn’t cause you to pay “huge” interest. But you probably would have gotten a better rate had you arranged your financing in advance, say with a local credit union. If the dealership then offered you a better deal, you could cancel your application with the credit union. As it was, you left yourself at the mercy of the dealer — not a good idea.

Once you get this loan paid off, consider making the same-sized payments to a savings account so you can pay cash for your next car. If you do decide to finance again, try to keep your loan term to three or four years. That will help ensure you don’t buy more car than you can afford and could prevent you from being “upside down” (owing more than the car is worth) for much of the loan term, as is often the case with longer loans.

How to fight a medical collection

Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.

Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.

If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.

If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.

“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”

Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.

“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”

If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.

You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.

“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.

Now available: My new book!

Do you have questions about money? Here’s a secret: we all do, and sometimes finding the right answers can be tough. My new book, “There Are No Dumb Questions About Money,” can make it easier for you to figure out your financial world.

I’ve taken your toughest questions about money and answered them in a clear, easy-to-read format. This book can help you manage your spending, improve your credit and find the best way to pay off debt. It can help you make the right choices when you’re investing, paying for your children’s education and prioritizing your financial goals. I’ve also tackled the difficult, emotional side of money: how to get on the same page with your partner, cope with spendthrift children (or parents!) and talk about end-of-life issues that can be so difficult to discuss. (And if you think your family is dysfunctional about money, read Chapter 5…you’ll either find answers to your problems, or be grateful that your situation isn’t as bad as some of the ones described there!)

Interested? You can buy this ebook on iTunes or on Amazon.

How to bounce back from bad credit

Foreclosure, bankruptcy or a history of missing payments can send your credit scores into the basement. The good news: nothing is permanent in the world of credit and credit scoring. You can rehabilitate your scores over time if you know how.

Here’s what to do:

Pull your credit reports from all three bureaus. Check for errors and dispute any serious mistakes, such as accounts that aren’t yours or late payments being reported when you paid on time.

If you don’t have any credit cards, apply for a secured card. These cards give you a credit line that’s equal to the amount of cash you deposit with the issuing bank. NerdWallet recommends the Capital One Secured Card and the Orchard Bank Secured Card.

Use your cards lightly but regularly. Your charges shouldn’t total more than about 30% of your credit limit—10% or less would be even better. And you shouldn’t charge more than you can afford to pay off in full every month. Carrying balances doesn’t help your credit scores, and it’s expensive. So don’t do it.

Apply for an installment loan. Your credit scores will recover faster if you have a mix of credit, which means both revolving accounts (credit cards) and installment accounts (mortgages, auto loans, student loans). If you don’t already have an installment loan, consider applying for a personal loan from your local credit union. These member-owned financial institutions often have been rates and more flexible credit standards than traditional banks. Don’t belong to a credit union? You can find one you’re eligible to join here.

Pay your bills on time, all of the time. One skipped payment can devastate your scores. So can an account that’s charged off, or that’s turned over to collections.

You can track your progress by using a credit monitoring service that includes your credit score. Some sites, like Credit Karma, offer credit monitoring for free, although the credit score you get isn’t the FICO score most lenders use. To get your FICO, you’ll need to sign up with MyFico.com.

Carrying a balance won’t help your scores

Dear Liz: I question your advice to the father whose son was turned down for a car loan. You told the father: “Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.”

Recently I was on the phone with a credit bureau questioning an item on my credit report. I have always paid off my credit card balance every month. The credit bureau representative told me that my credit score would be higher if I paid less than the full balance owed on my credit card every month. I asked her how it could possibly hurt my credit score by paying what I owe each month on a timely basis. She assured me that it does hurt my score. I still don’t understand it, but after I read your piece I thought I would pass on to you the advice I received from this credit bureau representative.

Answer: Just because someone works at a credit bureau’s customer service center does not mean she understands how credit scores work.

The information she gave you was dead wrong. She’s not only incorrect about how credit scoring works, but she seems unclear about how credit information is actually reported to her bureau.

The credit card balances that lenders report to the bureaus don’t reflect whether you pay your debt in full. The credit card issuers report the balance on a given day each month. Typically, but not always, it’s the balance from your last statement. You could pay the full amount the day you get your bill, or pay only the minimum. The credit bureaus would never know.

The leading credit scoring formula, the FICO, uses the balances that are reported to the bureaus to calculate your credit utilization. Since neither the bureaus nor the scoring formula “know” whether you pay that balance in full or not, there’s no advantage to carrying a balance. It doesn’t help your credit; it just costs you money. That’s also why it’s important to limit how much of your credit you use at any given time, since maxing out your cards can hurt your scores, even if you pay the balance in full.

“There is no reason to carry a balance to improve your score,” said Anthony A. Sprauve, public relations director for myFico.com, the only place where people can buy their FICO scores. “If someone is paying all of their bills on time; keeping their credit card balances low or at zero; and not opening new lines of credit, they are doing the three most important things they can to have a good credit score.”

Credit scores not perfect? Don’t sweat it

Dear Liz: I just bought a home and my FICO credit scores are excellent: 842, 813 and 809. I requested copies of my files from all three credit bureaus, and one of them — which showed me with the lowest score — said the reason my score wasn’t higher is that I had “too many inquiries in the last two months” (I had two, one of which was for my mortgage) and an “insufficient length of credit history” (my first credit account was opened in 1980). I called the bureau, but the representative wouldn’t give me any more information and just wanted to sell me my credit score for $7.95. The person I talked to was in India, which upset me even more. If companies want to outsource to foreign lands, that’s up to them, but they are making money of off every American’s personal history. We should have a right to keep our personal information here in the U.S. I have emailed my lawmakers about this, but what more can I do?

Answer: One of the things you can do is stop worrying about why your credit scores aren’t higher. Once you get above 760 or so on the 300-to-850 FICO scale, you’ll get the best rates and terms from virtually any lender. The software that provides the scores is set up to spit out “reason codes” for why your numbers are the way they are, but the higher your scores, the less relevant those reasons may be. The software has to tell you something, even if “fixing” the “problem” wouldn’t really affect your numbers.

You also need to stop turning to the credit bureaus for information about your scores. Although they sell FICO scores to lenders, the bureaus use a proprietary formula purchased from another company (also called FICO). The bureaus can’t really tell you much more about how the formula works than you could find out for yourself at MyFico.com, which is a site FICO co-founded. Plus, the credit scores the bureaus want to sell to you typically aren’t the FICO scores used by most lenders.

As for your right to decide where your credit information is kept, in effect you have none. The credit reporting system was set up to benefit lenders, not consumers. If you want to change that, continue contacting your lawmakers.

Could son’s unpaid bills harm parents’ credit? Maybe

Dear Liz: Our 24-year-old son lives with us. He failed out of college, has been fired from two restaurant jobs and is working part time at a grocery warehouse. He has neglected to pay his credit card for several months. He also waits until his cellphone carrier threatens to turn off his phone before he pays half of that bill. We are concerned that his poor payment history may start to reflect on our good credit histories. We are retired and may want to build a new house. His bills are sent to our address, and creditors call our home phone number looking for him.

Answer: His debts shouldn’t affect your credit reports and scores unless you cosigned loans or other credit accounts or added him as a joint user to your credit cards.

Note the word “shouldn’t.” It’s possible that an unethical collection agency would try to get you to pay these bills by posting the overdue accounts on your credit reports. That could negatively affect your scores. Check your credit reports at least once a year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. You also may want to consider ongoing credit monitoring, which can alert you if any collections or other suspicious activity shows up on your reports.

Speaking of unethical actions, you need to consider the possibility that your son could steal your financial identity. He probably has access to the information he would need to open new accounts in your name, including your Social Security numbers. His failure to pay his bills, even though it appears he can, indicates some moral shortcomings. He may not be low enough to rip off his parents, but if you have any suspicions about his trustworthiness, consider putting a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports. This freeze should prevent anyone from opening credit accounts in your name.

Finally, you can write letters to creditors telling them to stop contacting you. You run the risk that such a letter could lead a creditor to sue your son. But his creditors may sue him anyway if he doesn’t respond to their requests for payment.