Q&A: Credit report mistakes are common. Here’s how to fix them

Dear Liz: Two of my credit card issuers have drastically lowered my credit limits. They blamed my credit report at Equifax. At first, Equifax could not even find my report. I had to send paperwork to verify that I even exist. It turned out that my credit file had some inaccuracies. One of the credit card companies restored the credit limit on one of my cards but kept the lower limit on the other card. I have filed complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and would appreciate any advice as I am confused and upset.

Answer: That’s understandable, and you’re not alone. Problems with credit bureaus topped the CFPB’s list of consumer complaints in 2022.

You did all the right things: getting a copy of your credit report, disputing the errors, following up with the credit card companies and filing a complaint with the CFPB when your credit limits weren’t restored. The CFPB will reach out to companies to help facilitate a resolution.

If that doesn’t work, consider contacting your local congressional representative. These lawmakers typically have constituent services staff that may be able to help.

You should check your credit reports at Experian and TransUnion in case the errors aren’t limited to a single bureau. If the inaccuracies stem from possible identity theft, consider freezing your credit reports at all three bureaus to make it harder for scam artists to open new accounts in your name.

Q&A: How to help someone else build credit

Dear Liz: My 30-year-old son lives in Southeast Asia. He has some U.S. bank accounts but no U.S. credit cards. If I add him to my credit card, will that help to establish credit? Or is there another way for him to start getting credit in the U.S.? At some point, he and his wife will move back to the U.S.

Answer: Adding someone to your credit card as an authorized user can be a great way to help them build credit. Your history with the card is typically added to the other person’s credit reports and used in calculating their credit scores. If you can add him to more than one card, even better. As long as you use the cards responsibly — paying the bills on time, using only a fraction of the available credit — his scores should benefit.

You don’t have to give your son access to the cards for this to work. If you do, keep in mind that authorized users aren’t responsible for paying any charges.

Authorized users typically can be added or removed with a phone call to the issuer. You also can add an authorized user online by logging into your credit card account. But removing them may require you to pick up the phone.

Your son can build credit in other ways, including credit builder loans and secured cards, but those may have to wait until he has a U.S. address.

Q&A: Why asking for lower card limits can hurt your credit scores

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently paid off our home mortgage and now have only our two Visa cards, which we pay off in full each month. Depending on our monthly expenses or purchases, those balances rarely exceed a few hundred to possibly as high as a thousand dollars. Each card has a limit of several thousand dollars and would be much higher had we not previously requested lower limits on the accounts.

My credit scores have plummeted from well over 800 to the low 700s. One site that reports credit scores suggested that I open more credit accounts, because lenders supposedly like to see a variety of accounts when assessing creditworthiness.

This makes no sense to me. I have had an excellent credit track record for decades.

I’m concerned that with our current scores we may not qualify for preferred (0%) financing when we make a couple of car purchases in the not-too-distant future. While we could pay for those purchases in cash, my preference would be to take advantage of such a financing option and keep my money in accounts that would continue to increase in value.

Are we stuck with this situation unless we are willing to go into further debt?

Answer: No, but you need to be a little smarter about how you handle your credit.

You didn’t help yourself by asking for lower credit limits. The formulas like to see a big gap between the amount of credit you have and the amount you’re using, even if you pay in full each month. Ideally you would keep your utilization percentage in the single digits.

The closure of your only installment loan likely took a toll on your scores as well. As you were informed, credit scoring formulas favor those who responsibly handle a mix of credit — loans as well as cards. You can have good scores using just credit cards, but you might not achieve the highest possible scores without an installment loan.

Does that mean you won’t get 0% financing when you’re ready to buy a car? Perhaps, but 0% financing is pretty hard to find these days anyway and may not be the deal you think. You typically have to give up manufacturer rebates to get special financing deals and dealerships are often more resistant to negotiating on price. In other words, what you save on interest may be more than offset by a higher price tag for the car. You may find yourself better off using a low-cost auto loan from a credit union or paying cash.

If you do want to finance the cars, start by asking your credit card companies to restore those higher limits. Consider opening another credit card account or two if the first vehicle purchase is six months or more in the future because your credit will need a few months to recover from the temporary ding of the applications.

Another option is to get a small personal loan, which would add an installment loan back to your credit mix. Only you can decide whether paying some interest now is worth the possibility of paying less interest on a future auto loan.

Q&A: Why you need to pay attention to your credit utilization

Dear Liz: Our credit scores are in the low 800s. We always pay all credit card balances off before the next billing period. We are presently charging a cruise for us and our daughter and her husband. We’re worried about using too much of our available credit and thus reducing our credit scores. We’re using one credit card and paying half the balance this billing period and the rest on the next billing period. I’ve never been able to calculate the “credit utilization,” but I’m sure we will exceed it for the next two months even though we will pay the amount charged in full. With this large charge, can you suggest anything else we can do?

Answer: Your credit utilization is simply the amount of available credit that you’re using. If your card has a $10,000 limit and you make $5,000 in charges, your credit utilization ratio is 50%. (If you’re not sure what your credit limit is, you can check your account online or call the number on the back of your card and ask.)

In general, the less of your available credit you use the better.

The balance that matters for credit scoring purposes is the balance that’s reported to the credit bureaus — and that’s typically what you owe as of your statement closing date.

Making a payment right before the statement closes can help reduce your credit utilization. Some people make payments every week, or even more often, to keep their utilization in the single digits.

If you don’t plan to apply for a new credit card or loan, however, you probably don’t need to worry about a temporary ding to your credit scores because they’re already so high. Your scores will probably still be quite good and will rebound once you pay off the balance.

Q&A: How to improve credit card security

Dear Liz: Can you please explain why a personal identification number is not required when one uses a credit card? I know people who’ve had their card stolen and used quickly and for large amounts. That would immediately protect the credit card company from paying millions to cover losses.

Answer: “Chip and PIN” cards — which combine a microchip with a personal identification number — are the norm in most of the rest of the world. In the U.S., however, credit card issuers are reluctant to require their customers to use PINs.

The issuers are worried people would find the PINs to be a hassle and would opt to use a competitor’s card that didn’t require remembering and entering a number. The massive amount of fraud that results is considered a cost of doing business.

Consumers aren’t on the hook to pay for these bogus transactions as long as the fraud is reported within 60 days of the charges appearing on a statement. But compromised cards are still a hassle.

One of the best ways to protect your credit cards from fraud is to use mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay or Google Pay. These systems don’t expose your credit card number to the merchants and allow you to pay for purchases quickly and securely.

Q&A: Credit use and your scores

Dear Liz: When my credit utilization decreased to 24%, my credit score rose from 675 to 690. My utilization has since decreased to 17% but my score remains 690. Approximately what does my credit utilization have to be to see a credit score over 700?

Answer: Keep in mind that you have many credit scores, not just one, and the formulas used to create these scores can vary considerably. But in general, the less you use your available credit, the better. People with the highest credit scores tend to use less than 10% of their credit limits.

Q&A: Authorized credit card users

Dear Liz: Following your advice on building credit, we recently added our son as an authorized user on one of my credit cards. My question is, what happens when I pass away? Does the card remain with him as the only user? Do I need to address this in my will?

Answer: Your executor, the person you named in your will to handle your estate, will be responsible for closing the account when you die. If there are any balances owing, the debt will be paid from your estate. There’s no need to make special provisions for the account in your will. By that time, your son, one would hope, would have cards of his own, so the closure shouldn’t affect his credit scores much if at all.

Q&A: Multiple payments may help credit scores

Dear Liz: You recently wrote that using more than a small percentage of your credit cards’ available limit can hurt your credit scores, even if you pay your balances in full. I pay my credit cards in full each month and I also make several payments (via my bank’s online payment service) during the month. Do these multiple payments hurt or help my credit score?

Answer: They probably help. The balance that matters for credit scoring purposes is the balance that’s reported to the credit bureaus, and that’s typically what you owe on your statement closing date. Making multiple payments before the statement closing date should lower that balance. Just remember to make a payment between the statement closing date and before the due date to avoid late fees.

Q&A: Mom has dementia and credit cards. How does her family cancel the accounts?

Dear Liz: My mother has two credit cards that have had no activity for a year and a half due to being in an assisted living facility. She is living with dementia and no longer able to make any decisions (personal or financial) on her own. Should I or am I even able to cancel these cards or do I have to wait until she passes and send in a death certificate to the bank?

Answer: Theoretically you could close the accounts for her if you have a legal document known as a financial power of attorney. These documents are designed to help you take over the finances of someone who is incapacitated. Unfortunately, banks and credit card issuers sometimes refuse to honor powers of attorney despite legal requirements that they do so. You might need to hire an attorney to force them to accept your authority. You can get referrals to experienced attorneys from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and the American Bar Assn.

If you don’t have this document and your mother is no longer of sound mind, you probably would have to go to court to become her conservator to make financial decisions for her. That can be an expensive process.

But there might be a simple solution. Some credit cards have an “off” switch that prevents anyone from making charges on the account. If the card has this feature and you can access the account online, you may be able to effectively disable the account even if you can’t formally close it.

Q&A: Got an old credit card that you no longer use? What to do instead of canceling it

Dear Liz: I have been keeping a credit card that I no longer use because I’m afraid that canceling it may reduce my credit score. I have had the card since 1983, and it shows on my credit report as my longest credit relationship. I have other credit cards that I use regularly. I no longer have a mortgage. Should I keep the unused card?

Answer: Closing the card certainly won’t help your scores, but it’s impossible to know in advance how much they might be hurt. That doesn’t mean you should never close a card, but you may want to consider alternatives, particularly because this is your oldest card.

Does the issuer offer another type of card with cash back or other rewards you could use? If so, consider asking for a “product change” to the new card. That should preserve your long history with the account while supplying you with a credit card that better suits your needs.