Monday’s need-to-know money news

Flying Piggy BankHow to get the most out of your summer vacation, protecting yourself from medical identity theft, correcting financial myths and how to start saving for retirement.

3 Ways to Maximize Your Frequent Flier Miles This Summer

While holiday blackouts can make redeeming frequent flier miles difficult during the summer, there are still good deals to be had if you know where to look.

How to Protect Yourself from Fraud at the Hospital

Identity thieves are targeting victims at their most vulnerable. Find out what you can do to protect yourself.

Want More Time Off? Some Employers Let You Buy It

A novel approach to managing vacation time could allow you to purchase a day off or sell time you’re not going to use.

Financial Advisers Correct Common Personal Finance Myths

Meet the five common personal finance myths and how to avoid them.

How To Start Saving For Retirement

The good news is that it’s not too late. The bad news is that it will be if you wait any longer.

How to fight a medical collection

Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.

Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.

If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.

If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.

“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”

Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.

“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”

If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.

You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.

“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.

Botched remodel holding up refinancing

Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.

A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.

My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?

Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.

First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.

The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.

If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.