Q&A: A bill shows up twice in a credit report. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have been doing everything to raise my credit scores, which were horrible. I see some medical bills on my credit reports that seem identical. Should I try to dispute them or just let them go? I heard that if you try to dispute them, it allows the creditor to restart the clock on paying them, potentially keeping them on your report for seven more years.

Answer: You heard wrong, fortunately. Disputes don’t extend the limit on how long negative information can be reported.

You may be confusing the seven-year credit reporting time limit, which is part of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and restricts how long negative information stays on a credit report, with state statutes of limitation.

Statutes of limitation are supposed to limit how long a creditor may sue you over a debt. (The key phrase is “supposed to.” Collectors do file lawsuits on debts that are too old, hoping that the debtor won’t show up in court to point that out.)

Statutes of limitation can range from two to 15 years, depending on the state and the type of debt. In some states, it’s possible to restart the statute of limitations by making a payment on a debt, or even acknowledging that the debt is yours. (In California, the statute of limitations is four years for most debts.)

You’ll want to avoid either until you’re sure the bills are correct. You can start by disputing the bills with the credit bureaus.

If that doesn’t remove the duplicates, you can contact each collection agency in writing. Ask them to validate that the unpaid bill actually belongs to you and that they have the right to collect. Mention that if they cannot validate the debt, you want the bill removed from your credit reports. Also ask the collector to respond to your letter within 30 days.

Removing any duplicates may help your scores. Actually paying the collections typically won’t. It’s up to you whether you want to try settling the debts and risk reviving the statute of limitations, or simply wait until the debts fall off your credit reports after the seven-year mark.

Q: They paid off the mortgage. Then the credit score fell. Can that be right?

Dear Liz: My wife and I recently paid off our mortgage. We have no other debt. Soon after, I received a message from Experian that my FICO score, which has been perfect for quite a while, was reduced by 31 points. What justifies such action, and what do I need to do to bring up my score?

Answer: Credit scores were never intended to be a measure of anyone’s financial health. Instead, they were created to help lenders gauge the risk that an applicant would default on a loan or credit card debt.

Having a mix of types of credit, including installment loans (such as a mortgage) and revolving accounts (such as credit cards), generally helps your credit score. Because the mortgage was your only installment loan, that could have led to a larger-than-normal effect on your scores.

If your previous score was “perfect,” or 850 on the FICO scale, then there’s nothing you need to do. Once your scores are over about 760, you’re getting the best rates and terms, and there’s typically no other benefit to shoot for, other than bragging rights.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why playing the market right now is an especially bad idea. Also in the news: Is student loan discharge in bankruptcy within reach, the difference between being preapproved and prequalified for a credit card, and how your credit score is determined.

Playing the Market Is a Bad Idea, Especially Now
Brokerages have reported a surge in day trading, but the vast majority would be better off in low-cost funds.

Is Student Loan Discharge in Bankruptcy Now Within Reach?
Recent court rulings and lawmakers’ support to expand relief could help borrowers meet the stringent standards.

What’s the difference between being preapproved and prequalified for a credit card?
An unsolicited approval from a credit card issuer can be a red flag—they could be trying to sell you on a card you don’t need or want

How Your Credit Score Is Determined
Unraveling the mystery.

Q&A: The bottom line on getting your credit scores in better shape

Dear Liz: I want to write a letter of explanation to be included on my credit reports to explain a negative posting. How much impact will the letter have on my credit scores?

Answer: Credit scoring formulas can’t read, so letters of explanation won’t help your scores.

You do have a federal right to demand the credit bureaus include your explanation, which is also known as a consumer statement, in your credit reports. Theoretically, the statement could help a lender understand why you have the negative mark — but only if a human being actually examines your credit report and uses the information in evaluating your creditworthiness.

Because lending is largely automated, however, there’s no guarantee your statement will be read, let alone factored into a lending decision. Many of the other details of your credit report are converted to standardized codes used to calculate credit scores, but not consumer statements.

If the negative information in your reports isn’t accurate, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus. If the information is accurate, you can work to offset the effect on your scores.

Paying your credit accounts on time, all the time, will help rebuild credit. So will using less than 10% of your limits on credit cards.

If you don’t have a credit card, consider getting a secured card — where the credit limit typically is equal to the amount you deposit with the issuing bank. Credit builder loans, available at many credit unions, also can help add positive information to your credit reports.

Don’t close accounts, because that could hurt your scores and won’t get rid of any associated negative information.

People with only a few credit accounts also can help their scores by being added as an authorized user to a responsible person’s credit card. The responsible person doesn’t need to grant access to the actual card. Before taking this step, though, ask the credit card issuer whether authorized user information will be imported to your credit reports because issuers’ policies vary.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Smart money moves when cash is tighter than time. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on losing your health insurance and setting financial goals, how a gap year might haunt you financially, and how to boost your credit score with on-time Netflix payments.

Smart Money Moves When Cash Is Tighter Than Time
A lot of extra time on our hands, but not extra cash.

Smart Money Podcast: Losing Your Health Insurance, and Setting Financial Goals
Putting your health first.

How a Gap Year Might Haunt You Financially
It could cost you up to $90K in the long run.

Boost Your Credit Score With On-Time Netflix Payments
Your binge watching could boost your credit score.

Q&A: Helping a son with horrible credit scores

Dear Liz: My 33-year-old son has horrible credit scores. If I added his name to my credit card, would it have a positive effect on his score without any negative ramifications to mine? Could any of his creditors come after me?

Answer: Adding someone to your credit card as an authorized user can have a positive effect on their credit scores without negatively affecting your own or obligating you to pay their other debts. You would be responsible for any debt your authorized user incurred on the card.

In your son’s case, though, being added as an authorized user probably won’t help much.

When someone has fallen behind on their bills, the effect on their scores depends on three main factors: recency (how recently did a late payment occur?), severity (how far behind are they — 30 days, 60 days, 90 days or more?) and frequency (how many accounts have late payments?).

One skipped payment can knock 100 points or more off good scores but won’t result in “horrible” credit. Truly bad credit typically requires someone to be well behind on a number of accounts in the recent past. The fact that you’re worried about his creditors indicates that he may not have resolved his financial problems enough to start rebuilding his credit.

What he should do now depends on his circumstances.

If he still has a job, he may be able to arrange a payment plan or settle debts with collectors. If his income has dropped or he’s otherwise unable to pay, he may need to consider bankruptcy.

Once his past debts are resolved — either paid, settled or legally erased — he can take steps to improve his credit, one of which could include being added to your card. A credit builder loan, offered by many credit unions, also could help, as could a secured credit card, which requires a deposit.

It’s crucial that he be able to make all his payments on time, however. If he falls behind again, he’ll offset any progress that’s been made.

Q&A: I get different credit scores from my bank and card companies. What gives?

Dear Liz: I have three financial providers that supply regular, free credit scores: my bank and two credit card issuers. My credit score from the bank is always a “perfect score” while the two card companies are consistently 17 points lower, both exactly the same for two years now. I always pay off most or all of the outstanding balance on time or early. Any clue as to why there is this consistent difference?

Answer: The companies probably are using different credit scoring formulas or different credit bureaus, or both.

You don’t have one credit score. You have many. FICO is the dominant scoring formula, but lenders also use VantageScores and the credit bureaus sometimes provide their own, proprietary scores.

The formulas have been updated over the years. The FICO 8 is the most commonly used score, but the FICO 9 is the latest version and FICO 10 will be introduced this summer. Some scoring formulas are modified to suit different industries, such as auto lending or credit cards, plus each score is calculated from data at one of the three credit bureaus.

So one institution may provide its customers a FICO Score 9 from Experian, another might offer a FICO 8 Bankcard score from Equifax and a third might give you a VantageScore 3.0 from TransUnion. Even if all three were using the same type of score, they probably would use different credit bureaus, or vice versa. To make things even more confusing, your credit scores are constantly changing as your credit bureau information changes.

Furthermore, you typically can’t predict which score or scores a lender will use to evaluate your application for credit. Rather than worry about which number is “right” — they all are — use the free scores as a general indicator of your credit health.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Is it okay to never have a credit card? Also in the news: How to organize important documents simply and safely, can a credit card company lower your credit limit, and how to try and prevent your eviction.

Is It OK to Never Have a Credit Card?
Using credit cards responsibly is one way to build your credit history — but it’s not the only way.

How to Organize Important Documents Simply and Safely
What you should keep and for how long.

Can a Credit Card Company Lower My Credit Limit?
Cardholders are seeing an increase in reductions.

How to Try and Prevent Your Eviction
23 million renting families could lose their homes by September 30.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: People with COVID-19 payment accommodations are finding mistakes in their credit files. Also in the news: 6 tips to teach your kids lifelong money lessons during the pandemic, Americans lost $77 million to Covid-19 fraud, and what to do if you can’t pay your taxes next week.

People with COVID-19 payment accommodations are finding mistakes in their credit files
One mistake could lower your credit score by nearly one hundred points.

Use these 6 tips to teach your kids lifelong money lessons during the pandemic
A unique opportunity.

Americans lost $77 million to Covid-19 fraud — and that’s just the ‘tip of the iceberg’
Scammers never rest.

What to do if you can’t pay your taxes next week
You have a few options.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 ways to skip your bank’s long phone lines. Also in the news: Keeping your credit in shape, even if you don’t have debt and don’t plan to borrow, 25 ways to save yourself from your debt disaster, and how to set up a 60/40 budget.

3 Ways to Skip Your Bank’s Long Phone Lines
When phone wait times are long, try to reach your bank via live chat, Twitter or message instead.

Keep your credit in shape, even if you don’t have debt and don’t plan to borrow
Good credit is important year-round.

25 Ways To Save Yourself From Your Debt Disaster
Climbing out of the debt hole.

How to Set Up a 60/40 Budget
Focus on two buckets.