Q&A: Downside of unused credit cards

Dear Liz: In the past, you have recommended not canceling credit cards because doing so can hurt credit scores. Over the years, my husband has signed up for at least a dozen credit cards, eight of which we never use and have not used for as long as 10 years. He signed up for another card recently because it offered attractive cash rewards. Is having so many credit cards advisable and safe? Does it make us more vulnerable to identity theft? Without hurting our credit scores, may we discontinue the older cards we have stopped using? Is there any drawback to having multiple, perhaps dozens, of credit cards, especially if some are older and never used?

Answer: The biggest downside to having a bunch of unused credit cards is having to monitor all those accounts for fraudulent transactions, and perhaps paying unnecessary annual fees. The unused accounts add to the amount of available credit you have, which is a positive factor for credit scores.

If you’re concerned about identity theft, your best move would be to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus. Such freezes are now free, and you can easily “thaw” the freeze temporarily if you want to apply for credit.

Credit freezes make it harder for criminals to open new accounts in your name. If a criminal uses one of your existing accounts, you’re typically protected. The vast majority of credit cards offer “zero liability,” which means you won’t be held responsible for fraudulent charges. Even without zero liability, federal law limits your liability to $50.

If monitoring multiple accounts is too much hassle, though, then he should consider closing some of the cards. If he’s paying fees for cards he’s not using, another option is to ask the issuer for a “product change” to a card that doesn’t charge fees.

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  1. Dear Liz: I would appreciate your advice asap regarding unused Credit Cards, i.e., over 15-20 years. I was under the impression that unused credit cards were automatically cancelled after a certain period of time. Now, I understand that that policy does not exist and that credit cards must be monitored because they stay open until cancelled? Your answer will will be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you, Delia Fernandez

    • Liz Weston says

      Hi, Delia! You’re correct that cards must be monitored until the account is closed, and the issuer won’t necessarily close an unused account. If someone wants to keep a card open, it’s smart to charge something on it now and then. If a card is no longer being used and someone doesn’t want the hassle of monitoring it, they should contact the issuer to cancel it.