Q&A: Dumping debt could make you ‘credit invisible.’ Why that’s a problem and how to fix it

Dear Liz: I have a credit card issue that I’ve not been able to resolve and hope that you can provide some helpful suggestions. I am a debt-free senior. I owe nothing on my house or vehicles and I pay off my one credit card each month. I’ve no missing payments on utilities. My credit card reduced my credit limit last year saying that my credit scores were too low. In fact they’ve fallen from 800s to 600s over the last year. The bank that issues my business credit card says they use an algorithm that allows no human interaction for adjustments for people like me who are debt-free. Any suggestions?

Answer: Many people who once had good credit become “credit invisible” if they’ve paid off all their loans and stopped using credit cards.

But regularly using a credit card or two should be enough to stay visible to the credit score algorithms and to keep good scores. The problem may be the type of card you’re using. Business credit cards often don’t show up on personal credit reports, so your use of the card wouldn’t be included in credit score calculations. If that’s the case, consider applying for a personal card to start rebuilding your scores.

The other possibility is that you’ve become the victim of identity theft. Please check your credit reports at the three major credit bureaus. You can do so for free by typing AnnualCreditReport.com into your browser window or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Q&A; An auto dealer keeps checking my credit. Is that a problem?

Dear Liz: How do I remove inquiries from multiple auto lenders? One of the dealerships pulled my credit at least eight times over a two-day period. I thought this could only be done while the customer is physically at the car lot.

Answer: Dealerships aren’t supposed to check your credit without your permission, and they can’t check your credit if you don’t give them your personal information, including your Social Security number. Some dealers use deceptive methods to get your personal information, such as claiming they need your Social Security number for you to take a test drive. (They don’t.)

If you did give permission, though, there’s not a lot you can do about multiple inquiries. Dealerships can, and will, check with multiple lenders to see what rates and terms they’ll offer you. If your credit isn’t great, multiple inquiries may be necessary to find you a loan.

The good news is that multiple auto loan inquiries in a two-day span won’t hurt your credit that much or for that long. Most credit scoring formulas don’t count each auto loan inquiry separately, but instead aggregate such inquiries together and count them as one. The ding against your credit scores is typically small and lasts only a few months.

Ideally, though, you wouldn’t continue to do business with a dealership that wasn’t crystal clear about why it needed your personal information and how it was going to be used. Also, consider applying for a car loan from a local credit union before you step onto a car lot. Credit unions are member-owned and tend to have good rates and terms, without the runarounds and add-ons that are so prevalent at car dealerships.

Q&A: How young people can build their credit

Dear Liz: Our 23-year-old daughter has a low-limit credit card from her bank, primarily to build her credit history. For the same purpose, we also added her as an authorized user on one of our credit cards (yes, we can trust her). When she checked her credit reports recently at annualcreditreport.com, one of the agencies produced a report but another claimed they couldn’t find her. Is that normal for a relatively new credit user? Could it possibly be because she has a hyphenated middle name? Should we worry?

Answer: It can take 30 days or more for information to be updated at the credit bureaus, so she should try again and also check the third credit bureau. If two bureaus can’t find her after 30 days, then it’s possible that both credit cards report to only one bureau. In that case, she should consider getting a credit-builder loan from a credit union that reports to all three bureaus.

Otherwise, the problem is likely the credit bureau’s, and she should try ordering the missing credit report via the U.S. mail. The bureau that couldn’t find her will have instructions for requesting a report that way on its site.

Q&A: Lenders were supposed to tell you about pandemic debt relief. What if yours didn’t?

Dear Liz: I had a problem last year and had no income so I couldn’t pay my bills for three months. I explained the situation to my creditors, but they still put the late payments on my credit reports. I called and sent letters, but it was no good: My credit score dropped to the mid-500s. How can I get the late payments taken off?

Answer: Last year, many lenders offered various kinds of hardship programs because of the pandemic. If you were approved for forbearance, the payments you missed should not have been reported as late. You could dispute the errors at the three credit bureaus (start at www.annualcreditreport.com) and ask the lenders to correct the record.

Unfortunately, lenders don’t always tell customers that forbearance or other hardship programs are available. If you weren’t given the option to enroll when you called to explain your problem, contact your lenders again, in writing, to point that out and request that the late payments be removed from your credit reports.

If a lender refuses to cooperate, consider making a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Q&A: How to help your adult kids build their own credit

Dear Liz: My first house is paid for, and my oldest daughter and her husband are living there now. I added her name to my credit card, which is paid in full every month, but otherwise she hasn’t established any credit. I have been paying the utilities up until now, but they are going to take them over. Will changing my name and direct debit bank information to theirs on the accounts help establish her credit?

Answer: Some alternative credit-scoring systems do use utility payments to supplement the information in people’s credit reports. Experian Boost, for example, allows people to add such payments and potentially increase their Experian credit scores. Still, your daughter would be smart to continue adding traditional credit accounts to her reports.

One way to do that is with something called a “credit builder loan,” which is offered by some credit unions and at least one online lender, called Self. Essentially, the applicant borrows a certain amount, which the lender puts in a savings account or certificate of deposit. The borrower can claim the money after making a certain number of payments. The payments are reported to the three credit bureaus, contributing to her scores.

She also could apply for a credit card on her own, to supplement the one you added her to. If her credit isn’t yet good enough to qualify for an unsecured card, she could consider getting a secured card that gives her a line of credit equal to the amount she deposits with the issuing bank.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Your credit history opens doors – here’s how to build it. Also in the news: what happens to your debt if your school closes for good, and exit strategies for young adults forced home during COVID-19.

Your Credit History Opens Doors — Here’s How to Build It
About 13% of Americans in a survey said that they don’t have a credit history, and some don’t know how to get started.

If Your College Closes for Good, What Happens to Your Debt?
You have two options.

Is That Nearly New Salvage-Title Car Really a Deal?
A few dealers now specialize in professionally rebuilt salvage-title vehicles. The risks remain, though.

Exit Strategies for Young Adults Forced Home During COVID-19
How to make the Great Escape.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Can you have too much credit? Also in the news: How to safely move during a pandemic, what personal finance apps should be doing to better serve older people, and how to avoid paying a penalty if you missed the tax filing deadline.

Can You Have Too Much Credit?
Credit scoring formulas don’t punish people for having too many credit accounts, but too much debt can hurt scores.

How to Move Safely During a Pandemic
Keeping yourself and your stuff safe.

This is what personal finance apps should be doing to better serve older people
What a survey revealed about the apps.

How to Avoid Paying a Penalty If You Missed the Tax Filing Deadline
You could qualify for a first-time penalty abatement.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Can you have too much credit? Also in the news: 5 things to know about gold’s record breaking run, the Equal Opportunity Act and its effect on women’s finances, and negotiating with your landlord during COVID-19.

Can You Have Too Much Credit?
Credit scoring formulas don’t punish people for having too many credit accounts, but too much debt can hurt scores.

5 Things to Know About Gold’s Record-Breaking Run
As COVID-19 concerns continue to rattle markets, investors are turning to one of the world’s oldest currencies.

Women and credit: In the 1970s, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act became law— a key step in financial freedom for women
The law barred shady credit practices including lender discrimination based on race, sex, age, nationality or marital status.

Negotiate With Your Landlord During COVID-19
Be upfront and honest.

Can you have too much credit?

People who care about their credit scores tend to obsess about some things they probably shouldn’t, such as the possibility they might have too much credit.

Let’s bust that myth right upfront: The leading credit scoring formulas, FICO and VantageScore, don’t punish people for having too many accounts. And right now, having access to credit could be a lifeline.

In my latest for the Associated Press, find out why it’s not how many cards you have, but how you use them.

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.