Q&A: Adding a child as a credit card user

Dear Liz: I’ve read that adding a child as an authorized user on your credit card could help build his or her credit history. But I was specifically told that this was not the case, as the child’s Social Security number was not primary.

Answer: Whoever told you may not have understood how authorized user activity typically is reported, or may have been talking about a specific issuer’s policy.

Adding someone as an authorized user to a credit card typically results in the history for that card being added to the authorized user’s credit report. That in turn can help the authorized user build credit history and improve his or her credit scores.

Some smaller issuers, such as credit unions or regional banks, may not report authorized user activity to the three credit bureaus, but all of the major credit card companies do. Some of these big issuers, however, don’t report the information if the authorized user is younger than a certain age or if the information is negative. The age cutoff varies by issuer. For American Express and Wells Fargo, for example, it’s 18; for Barclays, it’s 16 and for Discover, it’s 15. Other major issuers don’t have an age cutoff. American Express and U.S. Bank also won’t report to the authorized user’s credit file if the account is delinquent.

The credit bureaus, in turn, have their own policies. TransUnion includes whatever the issuers report. Equifax adds the information to the credit report if the authorized user is at least 16. Experian adds the information supplied by the issuers, regardless of age, but will remove it if the original account becomes “derogatory” — which typically means payments are skipped or the account is charged off.

If you want to help a child build credit by adding the child as an authorized user, you’ll want to make sure you’re adding him or her to a card that will actually do some good. A quick call to the issuer can help you find out its policy on reporting authorized user activity.

Q&A: What to do when you’re mad at your credit card company

Dear Liz: This past summer I was traveling in a foreign country and the email alert that a credit card payment was due did not reach me. Upon returning to the U.S. and attempting to use the card, I was verbally assaulted over the phone by a credit card company representative demanding payment. I’m 80 and have never missed paying off any credit card charge at the end of the billing cycle or paid a penny in credit card interest. The card company reported the missed payment, lowering my credit score 133 points.

This is no way to run a business! I’ve cut up both cards and closed all accounts I had with this company. I had no problem getting a card from another issuer. I’d think that best practice in my case would have been a flag raised on their computers that the missed payment was unusual. A polite contact could have been made, the check would have been in the mail the next day and the company would still have a customer.

Answer: Being verbally assaulted after a one-time lapse suggests either a poorly trained representative or a company that doesn’t care much about customer service. Unfortunately, your leverage to get the missed payment taken off your credit reports pretty much disappeared when you closed your accounts. Some card issuers will make such “goodwill” adjustments to keep longtime customers, but others won’t. It’s always worth asking before you take your business elsewhere.

Now that you have your new card, please consider setting up some kind of automatic payment so this doesn’t happen again. Credit card companies typically offer the option to have your minimum payment, your full balance or a dollar amount in between pulled from your checking account. Making sure that at least the minimum is paid can prevent further damage to your credit scores.

Q&A: Why you should keep credit use low

Dear Liz: You recently said you don’t need debt to have good credit, but I was told that “credit utilization” — the amount of credit you use compared with your credit limits — is important. Paying off the cards each month means zero balances are reported to the credit bureaus and result in no utilization. Also, older credit accounts help scores, and my older accounts dropped off after a period of time, lowering my average age of credit accounts to four years. How can I fix this? Good credit doesn’t stay on forever.

Answer: It’s not true that paying off your cards results in zero credit utilization. The balance that the card issuers report to the credit bureaus is typically the balance on your statement date. You could pay it off in full the very next day, and the statement date balance would still show up on your credit reports and get calculated into your credit scores.

That’s why it’s important to keep your credit utilization down, even if you pay in full (as you should). It’s good to keep charges below about 30% of your credit limit. Below 20% is even better, and below 10% is best.

Accounts typically won’t drop off your credit reports unless they’re closed. Even then, the closed accounts can remain on your credit reports for many years, contributing to the average age of your accounts. The key to having good scores is to keep a few accounts open and in use, not to carry debt.

Q&A: Auto dealers must abide by credit check limits

Dear Liz: I have loans and have paid my credit cards in full for over 30 years. My FICO score is 829. I don’t really care as I don’t plan to borrow in the future. I check my score and reports occasionally to check for a possible error or scam. Other than this, is there any reason at all that I should care?

I did notice a car dealership checked my score when recently I submitted a down payment check to order a car for which I would pay in full. I don’t believe they would refuse to sell me the car for cash if I had a lousy credit score, so they probably wanted some measure of reassurance about whether I have a lifestyle that could afford completing the deal.

Answer: You have many FICO scores, not just one, but if any one of them is 829, then the rest of them are probably pretty good, too.

Credit scores are used for more than borrowing decisions. In most states (but not California), insurance companies can use credit information to set premiums. Cellphone companies, landlords and utilities use them as well.

Car dealerships, however, aren’t supposed to pull your credit scores without your permission. That’s a violation of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

If the dealership got your permission by telling you a credit check was necessary for a down payment (or an all-cash deal, for that matter), then it misled you.

To prevent money laundering, dealerships are required to ask for identification and a Social Security or Tax ID number from buyers who are purchasing a car for more than $10,000 in cash. That’s it.

But some dealers pretend the anti-terrorism Patriot Act requires them to check your credit when you pay cash, which is nonsense. Typically, dealerships run credit checks to see if they can make an extra buck by financing the deal. Those checks are coded as hard inquiries that can damage people’s credit scores. (That’s in contrast to what happens when you check your own credit, which creates “soft” inquiries that don’t affect scores.)

Your scores are high, so the credit check probably didn’t ding them much. But the dealership was accessing information about you that it didn’t need to have. Plus, the more outfits that have your credit information, the greater your risk of identity theft.

If you didn’t give your OK, you could file a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawsuit to collect up to $1,000 from the dealership. If you did give your permission, strongly consider withholding it the next time if you’re not interested in financing your vehicle.

Q&A: Credit alert or phishing scam?

Dear Liz: I received a notice from one of my credit card companies stating that they had noticed something amiss in my credit, though not related to their card. The notice suggested I check my credit reports, which I did. Nothing showed up on the reports that was of concern. What else should I do to ensure my credit stays secure?

Answer: Vague “alerts” are a hallmark of phishing emails that are trying to get you to reveal personal information.

If you followed a link in an email to view your credit reports or accessed them on any site other than www.annualcreditreport.com, you may well have handed your Social Security number and other vital data to an identity thief.

If that’s the case, you should freeze your credit reports to prevent the thief from opening new accounts in your name. You might want to do that anyway, given the prevalence and severity of recent database breaches.

Q&A: A husband’s death. A pile of bills. Now what?

Dear Liz: After my husband died, I was in shock and really not in my right mind for at least a year, but really more. During this time I didn’t pay attention to bills. Only the ones that were getting shut off got paid. Now I’m behind on several credit cards that I’ve had for years. I can’t keep up anymore, but I don’t know what to do.

Answer: It’s natural in your situation to be overwhelmed and not know where to start. Your first task should be determining if you can realistically pay what you owe.

If your unsecured personal debt — credit cards, medical bills, payday loans and personal loans — equals half or more of your income, then you may not be able to dig yourself out. If that’s the case, consider making appointments with a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to review your options. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org or (800) 388-2227 and the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Even if your debts don’t total half your income, you may find it helpful to discuss your situation with a credit counselor or an accredited financial counselor (referrals from the Assn. for Financial Counseling and Planning Education at www.afcpe.org). These counselors can review your situation and help you craft a plan to get your finances back on solid ground.

Social Security survivor benefits also can be a way to restore your financial stability, depending on your age. You can receive survivor benefits starting at age 60, or age 50 if you’re disabled, or at any age if you’re caring for your husband’s child if the child is younger than age 16 or disabled.

Applying for survivor benefits doesn’t preclude you from applying for your own retirement benefit later. You could take a widow’s benefit at 60 and then switch to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70, if your own benefit would be larger at that point.

Q&A: How to get a higher credit limit after the card company turns you down

Dear Liz: I asked for a credit limit increase on my Visa card from $5,000 to $20,000. I was turned down because of not enough income. I was very disappointed and wonder what if anything I can do to reverse the situation.

I am a 77-year-old retired widow who owns my home with no mortgage. My annual income is around $50,000 from Social Security and my required minimum distributions from IRAs. I have no debt. My investments and savings obviously don’t count. I was about to charge $12,000 in airline tickets and wanted to take advantage of the cash back on the credit card. I always pay my credit card bill in full every month. I feel discriminated against.

Answer: Imagine you’re a lender and one of your customers suddenly demands that you quadruple the amount you’ve agreed to lend her, with the resulting credit line equal to 40% of her income. That might give you pause.

Or perhaps not. Credit card issuers have different policies about when to grant or deny credit, and those policies can change over time as they try to manage the risks of their lending portfolios. Also, issuers may be less generous to their longtime customers than they are to the new customers they’re trying to attract.

Understanding all that can help you formulate a game plan to get what you want. One option is to call the issuer, explain your situation and ask for a temporary credit line increase so you can book those tickets.

Another (and certainly more lucrative) option would be to apply for a new credit card with a fat sign-up bonus from a different issuer. Several cash-back cards offer rewards of $150 to $200 once you spend a certain amount within the first few months, and you would meet that requirement easily with your ticket purchases.

If you’re willing to consider something other than a cash-back card, you can check out travel rewards cards that offer points or miles. Several have bonuses that can translate into $400 or more of free travel.

Applying for a new card might temporarily drop your credit scores a few points, but that shouldn’t be a concern if you’re not planning to apply for a major loan in the next few months.

Q&A: Too many cards?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have opened accounts to take advantage of 0% interest financing for special purchases. These accounts are paid in full prior to the end of the promotional period and we don’t use them again. I’ve read to not ever close any accounts, but am nervous about having so many accounts open with such high limits. Is there potential for issuers to stop granting us credit because we have so much available? Are we at greater risk for identity theft with all of these open accounts?

Answer: People used to believe that closing accounts could somehow help their credit scores. Credit scoring companies and experts have done their best to combat that myth, but in doing so have left some people thinking that they can’t ever close unneeded accounts. That’s not true either.

Your credit scores won’t be hurt by having “too many” accounts with high limits. That’s generally a good thing, since multiple lenders have deemed you creditworthy. You get the most credit scoring benefit, though, from accounts you’re actively using.

Leaving unused accounts open can leave you more vulnerable to fraudulent account takeover. At the very least, it adds to the hassles in your life, since you have to keep an eye on all your accounts. And conceivably a lender could balk at seeing a lot of unused credit lines, even if it didn’t hurt your scores.

You don’t want to close accounts if you’re trying to improve your scores or in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan. Otherwise, though, you shouldn’t worry about closing an account now and then if you’re not using it.

Q&A: How to improve your FICO score

Dear Liz: My FICO score is just under 800. The reason given that it is not higher is that I don’t have any non-mortgage leases. What would be the cheapest way to remedy this without buying something expensive?

Answer: When you get your credit scores, you may be given sometimes-vague reasons for why they’re not higher or lower. The “reason code” you saw probably said something like “no recent non-mortgage balance information.” What that means is that you haven’t been using revolving accounts such as credit cards. To get higher scores, you’d need to dust off your plastic and use it once in a while. (You don’t need to carry a balance to get or keep good scores, however. You can and should pay credit card balances in full each month.)

Any improvement in your scores is likely to be modest, however. Your numbers are already high and the factor known as “mix of credit” — which means responsibly using both revolving and installment accounts — accounts for just 10% of your FICO scores. Plus, there’s no real point in having scores over 800, other than to brag about them. Once your scores exceed 760 or so, you’re already eligible for the best rates and terms.

Q&A: What to do about heavy credit card debt

Dear Liz: I have a lot of credit card debt and am just able to make minimum payments. I feel like after doing this for four years now that I am not getting ahead. I will be 61 this summer and don’t have much saved for retirement. My rent keeps going up along with other expenses. I have an 11-year-old car that is in need of maintenance but don’t have the funds to do it. My question is, what would happen if I walk away from the credit card debt? Will I be facing garnishment?

Answer: Yes, you could be sued and face wage garnishment if you simply stopped paying your debts.

You could consider a debt management plan offered through a credit counselor, which could lower the interest rates you pay. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. But you’d be making payments for the next five years or so, when you could be putting that cash toward your retirement.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, by contrast, would take a few months and legally erase your credit card debt to give you a fresh start. Bankruptcy is often the best of bad options when you can’t make progress on your debts. Consider meeting with both a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.