Archive for the ‘Your Credit Score’ Category

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

The 7 Most Common Credit Card Mistakes

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Credit cards have become essential pieces of plastic within the wallets of Americans. Without them, people feel out of the loop and unable to fully feel safe if an “emergency” arises.

The problem is; most credit cards aren’t strictly for emergencies. They are often over used and under monitored, causing their owners to fall into serious debt; sometimes even having to file for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy.

MSN has detailed the 7 most commonly committed mistakes when it comes to credit card usage.

The Mistakes

Paying Your Bill Late

This is one of the most common mistakes. This is a big one too, with higher interest rates and lower credit scores at risk when you don’t pay what’s due on your card. Experts suggest paying bills online so you can monitor your account before it’s too late.

Balance Transfer Nightmare

Some offers seem like a great idea; move high interest balances to low to no interest cards in order to save on the interest. However, some cards have fine print that states the rate will rise to much higher than the introductory rate after the promotional term is completed. Beware say the experts.

The Minimum Payment Rut

By constantly paying the minimum balance due every month, you end up paying much more in the long run for items you purchase on your card. In the end, the interest causes you to pay more than the balance sometimes, say the experts. Pay twice or triple the minimum in order for you to be debt free in less time.

Using All Available Credit

Credit utilization ratio is a large factor in many things, including your credit score. When you have a high balance compared to your credit limit, it looks bad. Experts say, do not spend more than 30 percent of your credit limit at any given time for an ideal credit situation.

Cash Advances

Taking cash advances from your credit card is an easy way to rack up the fees. Credit cards often charge huge penalties when you take out cash advances on credit cards so beware. On top of the penalties, a fee is usually assessed when you take out the money, furthering your financial headache.

Spending To Earn Rewards

Almost all cards are now offering rewards. Many offer airline miles, or credits for cash after you spend a certain amount. Many people don’t realize the amount of purchasing needed in order to rack up the amount of points needed for their desired perk.

Annual Fees

Some cards are only available with annual fees due to the borrower’s credit history. Experts say to avoid these annual fees at all cost due to the wasteful nature of the fee itself. Fees are now capped at 25 percent, thanks to a government program designed at taking much of the burden of credit card debt off of the average American citizen. Experts still say to be diligent in shopping for new credit cards and look for cards that offer no annual fees or excessive annual fees in order to make sure you’re not causing any further financial troubles for yourself.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Social Networking, DNA may Affect Credit Soon

Living in the Information Age has a number of advantages: we can avoid holiday crowds to shop from the comfort of our living rooms, and even ditch the commute to work remotely from home. But new stirrings in the credit card industry about future plans for collecting and using customer information have raised warning cries from a number of consumer advocates.

A recent article in Time magazine discusses plans that credit card issuer Visa has to gather more information from consumers to better target ads and evaluate credit card applicants. Sources report that the company has plans to collect information from a number of sources, including:

  • Social networking websites, on which many consumers discuss their interests and post (even if indirectly) about their desires and spending habits.
  • Credit bureaus, which they already use. This is why filing for bankruptcy has an effect on a filer’s ability to get credit in the future: credit card issuers can see that the bankruptcy took place for seven to ten years after it’s filed.
  • Search engines, such as Google and Bing. This information could include not only shopping habits and interests but also information about everything a person researches, including words like “mortgage loan help” and “payday loans offers.”
  • Insurance claims, which might paint a picture of a person’s health, driving habits, and more.
  • DNA databanks. This last information source has caused the most uproar: information hardly gets more personal than a person’s genetic code, and the potential applications of such data are mind-boggling.

So how would credit card issuers use such a bevy of private data to their benefit? In a lot of ways, according to analysts. And many of them could seriously hurt consumers.

DNA or insurance claim data, for example, could reveal to credit card issuers a person’s health history or likelihood for developing a genetic condition. If that condition typically leads to significant medical expenses, the credit card issuer might deny the person credit—after all, many people end up discharging high medical bills in bankruptcy, and credit cards often get the same treatment in Chapter 7 cases.

Insufficient Legal Protections

What worries some analysts is that the U.S. currently has no laws in place to prevent such elaborate information gathering or denying credit on the basis of information like genetic code. As usual, the technology available has progressed far faster than the legislation designed to regulate that technology.

Another major concern? Identity theft and data breaches. It’s hardly uncommon to hear about data leaks and breaches in the news, but imagine the potential fallout if thieves had access to more than names and social security numbers.

At present, of course, neither Visa nor any other credit card issuer has such information on hand. But it could be a less distant future than we first imagine.

The Obama White House has announced two new plans to help struggling Americans better manage their debt burdens. Both measures are targeted at debts that even filing personal bankruptcy cannot always eliminate, student loans and mortgages. Here’s a look at what the debt relief programs are designed to do and how they might help you.

Mortgage Relief: The New HARP

On the mortgage side of things, the Obama Administration recently rolled out revisions to its Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP). At present, the program provides a pathway to mortgage refinancing for those who are underwater on their mortgage loans and have loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

The changes will:

  • Add protections for lenders who agree to refinance. At present, the main problem with implementing HARP has apparently been getting lenders to agree to refinance mortgages. The new version will add more protections for these lenders so they’re more likely to actually offer modified mortgage loan terms to needy borrowers.
  • Expand those eligible to participate. When the new changes go into effect, any homeowner who is underwater on a federally backed loan, is current on payments, and has no late payments in the recent past will be eligible for HARP help.
  • NOT help those who are delinquent on their mortgages. While mortgage delinquency numbers have been reportedly creeping downward in recent months, fully 3.9 percent of borrowers are currently 90 days or more late on their mortgage payments, and another two million are in some stage of the foreclosure process. The HARP revisions will not help these groups.
  • NOT help those with private mortgages. Homeowners whose mortgages are backed by an institution other than Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are also ineligible for the HARP protections.

Student Loan Relief: Pay as You Earn

On the student loan side of things, the White House has offered an updated alternative to the current Income Based Repayment (IBR) option. When the new rules take effect, students with educational debt enrolled in Pay as You Earn will be required to pay no more than 10 percent of their monthly income in student loans.

Further, the new program will forgive federal student loans after 10 years of working in the public sector and after 20 years in certain other jobs. Certain student borrowers who are unemployed may be excused from making payments until they find work.

The Pay as You Earn program will not offer relief to:

  • Those with privately funded student loans. Only federally backed loans qualify for this particular program.
  • Those who are currently late on loan payments. As with IBR, Pay as You Go requires loan holders to be current on payments in order to enroll.

The number of graduates defaulting on their loans within a year of earning their degree rose from seven percent between 2008 to 2009 to 8.8 percent between 2009 to 2010.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Report: Credit Scores During the Recession

The Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), which develops the primary formula used to calculate credit scores, released data this week on changes to credit scores during the economic turmoil of the last several years. The report shows credit score distribution from 2005 through 2011 and indicates that, on average, our credit scores have not changed significantly since the collapse of the housing market in 2007.

If that sounds fishy to you, don’t worry: the term “average” here is meant mathematically. Individual credit scores fluctuated in various ways:

  • More people in the highest group: In 2005, when the stock and housing markets were still going strong, 16.9 percent of Americans had a credit score in the highest range (800 to 850). In 2011, though, the highest-scoring group has swelled to 18.1 percent.
  • More people in the lowest group: In 2005, people with credit scores between 350 and 599 stood at 23.6 percent of the population. This year, the number has risen to 24.9 percent. Early in the recession, people with the lowest scores (350 to 499) jumped, too, though that percentage has leveled out in the last two years.
  • Fewer people in the middle: Those with credit scores between 600 and 799, usually considered to be in the middle of the credit scoring pack, saw their numbers decrease between 2005 (59.5 percent) and 2011 (56.5 percent).

Making Sense of the Numbers

While the findings at first may seem confusing or counterintuitive, there is a satisfying explanation behind the shift toward the extremes of the credit-scoring spectrum during a downturn.

  • The strong shore up: People who already have fairly strong credit scores tend to be more financially secure than those with lower scores. When the economy sours, these people tend to pay down debt more quickly than they might have otherwise, save more money, and avoid new sources of credit. These actions not only prepare them for potential financial road bumps (such as unemployment) but also improve their credit scores.
  • The weak struggle: People already overextended on credit tend to be less financially secure and may be hurt especially hard by tough economic times. Job loss, reliance on new lines of credit and unexpected expenses could cause this group even more financial distress, thus lowering their scores further.

Individuals close to either end of the spectrum may move further toward that end in tough times, thus lowering the total percentage of folks in the middle.

Individual Habits Most Important

Another important factor in determining credit scores is a person’s individual spending and saving habits. Because these tend not to change much regardless of external forces, recessionary times might not affect credit scores as much as they affect other economic indicators such as home prices and interest rates.

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Changes on the Way for Credit Scores?

Though the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) introduced a new credit-scoring model more than three years ago, lending institutions are only now beginning to adopt it. According to a new report on Credit.com, the delay could be bad news for consumers hoping to apply for credit or loans.

The new model, called FICO 8, was ready for adoption in 2008 and rolled out in 2009. But, aside from Citibank, which adopted the new scoring method earlier this summer, the major lenders in the U.S. (including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) have yet to change their scoring techniques.

FICO Background

The FICO credit score is generally heralded as the gold standard in the lending industry. This score ranges from 300 to 850 and determines what kind of rates consumers get on loans (and whether they qualify for loans at all).

Negative credit actions (including defaulting on loans, filing for bankruptcy, going into foreclosure, etc.) lower a credit score; positive credit actions (paying bills on time, having a low credit usage ratio, etc.) raise it.

Is the Delay Hurting Borrowers?

Sources note that FICO 8 introduces scoring tools that could give consumers a better chance of qualifying for loans, including:

  • Less emphasis on unpaid debts under $100. Many of those debts, it seems, might be from the doctor. According to the Commonwealth Fund, 14 million Americans are currently fighting medical bills. And the FTC notes that half of all debts in collections are medical.
  • More consumer categories. Rather than dividing consumers into 10 groups, FICO 8 carves out 16, meaning that scoring tools will be able to more accurately predict consumer behavior.
  • Fairer comparisons. The old credit-scoring model (still currently in use in much of the country) essentially had one ruler for every lender. The new model allows lenders to compare someone with, say, a short credit history to others with histories of a similar length. This will help provide a more accurate picture of whether or not someone is a good credit risk compared to her peers.
  • Credit utilization will count more. To balance the effect of counting small unpaid debts less, high credit utilization ratios will hurt a score more significantly (i.e. those with maxed out on cards will suffer).

Possible Reasons for Delay

According to Credit.com, the delay in adoption of FICO 8 might be related to a number of factors. Fannie and Freddie (responsible for underwriting most mortgages in the U.S.), for example, are currently facing opposition in Congress to the government support they enjoy. After suffering major losses in the mortgage meltdown, they may be more focused on staying afloat than changing the way they do business.

As for other major lenders, the outlook isn’t much better. Seventeen major banks are now facing lawsuits regarding toxic assets they sold to investors during the mortgage boom. Depending how the suits play out, those institutions could owe serious money that they may or may not have. Considering those conditions, a non-essential policy change may seem frivolous.

Dealing with debt collectors can be stressful enough when you know you actually owe them money. But with cases of identity theft and mistaken identity, some people have the unpleasant experience of debt collector harassment when they don’t owe anything at all.

Here’s a look at how debt collectors might get the wrong person and what you can do if you’re on the wrong end of the phone.

Identity Theft or Mistaken Identity?

Generally speaking, there are a few reasons a person would get collection calls intended for someone else. These include:

  • Identity theft: When someone uses another person’s identifying information (Social Security Number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, etc.), that’s identity theft. Some thieves apply for jobs with stolen SSNs, some open new credit accounts and some simply use existing accounts. To check whether someone besides you has been using your information, log on to AnnualCreditReport.com for a free check of your credit report. If debt collectors are calling because of identity theft, you might have a lot of work ahead of you straightening things out. The sooner you check your reports, the better.
  • Mistaken identity: In this situation, a debt collector simply mistakes you for someone with a similar (or identical) name. Those with common names are naturally more susceptible to this than those with unusual names, but it could happen to anyone. In some cases, third-party identity checkers will contact you before you receive debt collection calls to verify your name and phone number. If you get a call like this, insist on learning as much as you can.
  • A combination: It’s possible that a credit reporting company accidentally combined two credit reports (i.e. merged information from the reports of two people with similar or identical names). If this has happened to you, you need to take action to get your credit situation sorted out. It will require a little effort, but it’s essential to avoid future confusion and to maintain your individual credit.

Dealing with Debts that Aren’t Yours

So what can you do if debt collectors won’t leave you alone about someone else’s debt? Thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can take action:

  • Review your credit report. Make sure your identity isn’t being used by anyone other than yourself.
  • Send the collectors a letter explaining why you are not responsible for these debts and asking them to stop contacting you.
  • Request written proof that you are the one who owes these debts. Because the debt collector is unlikely to be able to do this, you may never hear from them again.

If you are unable to convince collectors of your identity, you may want to consider enlisting legal help.

To consumers struggling to make ends meet, advertisements for credit repair or debt settlement may sound like the perfect solution to their financial woes. But in some cases, these services do little or nothing for consumers’ debt problems and instead sap their finances and leave them in need of bankruptcy protection.

Before you sign up for any service that promises to improve your credit, make sure you understand the potential risks involved in such offers.

Credit Repair Scams

Credit repair offers (which are often scams) generally advertise their ability to “wipe out negative information” on a credit report or provide a “quick and legal” way to improve your credit. But the truth is this:

  • You can remove negative information yourself…if it’s false: You don’t need to hire an outside company to remove mistakes from your credit report. Rather, visit annualcreditreport.com and request a free copy of your report. If you see any information that doesn’t belong, simply follow the site’s instructions for contesting the information and the responsible parties will take steps to remove it.
  • Only time can erase true negative information: On the other hand, if your credit report contains damaging information that is correct (e.g. that you’ve missed payments, defaulted on a loan, or something similar), only time (and positive credit behavior) will ease the information’s impact.
  • A blank credit report isn’t good news: Even if a credit repair company managed to erase all negative information from your credit report, having a blank credit report might be a disadvantage for you. Why? Because without any credit history at all, potential lenders are unable to make an assessment about whether or not to lend you money.

Debt Settlement (Scams)

Another commonly advertised financial service is debt settlement. While some debt settlers are legitimate and can be helpful to those in financial need, others are less scrupulous and simply take customers’ money without helping them much in exchange. Here’s the truth:

  • You can settle your own debts: If you’re struggling to keep up with or have fallen behind on some bills, your creditors may be willing to negotiate with you. Why? Because in many cases, creditors stand to make more money from settling a debt (say, for an amount less than the total owed or for a lowered interest rate) than from a customer’s bankruptcy filing.
  • You shouldn’t have to pay upfront fees: Recently passed rules from the FTC mandate that debt settlement firms cannot charge upfront fees for their services in most cases. Some debt settlers, it seems, were taking payments from customers but putting little or nothing toward actual creditor payments.
  • You have a legal obligation to pay your debts: Part of the agreement you have with any lender is that you will pay the bill for any debt you incur – that’s why you have to sign a contract before anyone will loan you money. If a debt settlement company suggests that you will face no legal repercussions from withholding payment from your creditors, be suspicious: in many cases, that’s simply not true.

The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s made waves last week when it announced that it had downgraded the outlook on U.S. debt from “stable” to “negative,” leaving many ordinary Americans wondering what the change means for the economy and how debt rating works in the first place.

Here’s a look at what our country’s debt rating might mean in future months and how that rating is like an individual credit score.

Rating the U.S. Debt

Currently, the United States has a credit rating of AAA, which is the highest rating possible. This rating indicates that the U.S. is a stable country and is likely to repay any loans it takes out. But there’s more to the story.

  • Outlook on U.S. debt: While the other two major credit rating agencies (Moody’s and Fitch Ratings) have not announced any changes to their ratings on the outlook for U.S. debt, Standard & Poor’s downgraded that rating last week, citing as one reason the continued inability of Congress to make a decision regarding the long-term future of spending policies.
  • A warning move: While the change in the outlook rating does not officially alter the country’s credit rating, it serves as a warning and reminder to legislators and others in positions of power that the country’s financial stability and credibility on the world stage are at stake.
  • Potential for positive impact: Some commentators have mentioned that the changed credit rating could actually prove beneficial to the country, as it may push Congress to act swiftly (and without unnecessary political posturing) in taking steps toward changing financial policy.

The Parallel with Individual Credit Ratings

As anyone who has ever file for bankruptcy, applied for a mortgage or thought about borrowing money for a car knows, individuals have credit ratings too. And, as with the credit rating for the United States, credit ratings for individuals are used to help lenders and investors determine whether or not to lend money to a person and on what terms.

If Standard & Poor’s actually downgraded the country’s credit rating, it would have a similar effect on the nation as seeing a drop in a credit score would for an individual. In other words, the U.S. would have more difficulty borrowing money and could suffer a variety of financial consequences.

So how can a country (or an individual) keep its credit rating as strong as possible?

  • Pay bills on time.
  • Pay down as much debt as possible.
  • Try to keep credit usage low (that is, stay well below the limit).
  • Keep old accounts active (but not maxed out).
  • Contact creditors before bill due dates if there is ever reason to expect inability to make timely payments.

Consumer credit use has dropped since the beginning of the Great Recession, which seems like good news for a country plagued by excessive consumer debt (often in the unhealthy, revolving credit-card type), as a recent report from Credit.com notes.

Here’s a look at some potential causes of that dip and how you can resist the urge to spend, even if you’re surrounded by good-time plastic-swipers.

What Do Lowered Credit Card Debt Numbers Really Mean?

The easy assumption is that Americans are purchasing less on credit and/or paying down the debt they currently have. But, according to some insiders, that may account for only part of the decrease in credit card debt we’ve seen lately. Here are some other potential causes:

  • Credit card issuer charge-offs: Credit card companies make a lot of money from fees and interest, but they also end up "charging off" a lot of debt each year. Of course, they can afford to do this because of all the other income they collect, but still. When a customer files for bankruptcy and has her credit card debt forgiven by the court, the company generally writes that off as lost revenue. Similarly, if a consumer simply cannot pay, the issuer may sell the debt to a collection agency and charge off that debt. These numbers may not show up in the report of how much credit card debt Americans are currently holding, so we may have racked up more than we actually have to pay off.
  • Tightened lending standards: Another result of the credit crisis we’ve found ourselves in is that lending standards for ordinary Americans have gotten tighter than ever before. This means that, even if an ordinary consumer may want to take on more debt, he may not be able to because nobody will lend to him. While this reads on a numbers-only report like lowered consumer debt, it can be a bad thing if consumers need access to lines of credit to buy cars or homes.
  • New credit card rules: Finally, some analysts have suggested that the new rules introduced by the Credit CARD Act have given consumers a better idea of what they’re getting themselves into when they sign up for credit cards, and thus acted as a preventative measure against excessive consumer debt.

Climb Aboard the Less-Debt Ship

So how can you take advantage of this trend to help improve your personal financial situation? Check out these tips on avoiding over-spending when you’re out with non-frugal buddies. Suggestions include:

  • Stick with cash so you don’t get caught with other people’s meals or drinks on your card;
  • Pretend you’re coming down with something to avoid being pressured into pricey drinks with dinner;
  • Think up something big you can say you’re saving for to avoid endless purchases… and then really save; and more.

No matter what your reasons for improving your financial profile, these tips should help you get a head start.

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

A Look at Consumer Debt Where You Live

Though the U.S. economy is certainly not in top health just yet, a number of indicators suggest that we may be pulling out of this recession – but that may be a mixed blessing for many consumers.

Two recent reports (one from the Federal Reserve and one from CareOne Services) suggest that Americans have started spending more, which may be good for the economy overall, but could be a bad thing for individual debt loads.

Consumer Debt, State by State

The CareOne Services report examined 135,000 people across the country who were active in some sort of debt management program in 2009 or 2010 and found that, among that group, the average debt load was more than $10,000 in every state.

Here’s a look at the top of the heap for unsecured debt in the U.S.:

  • Delaware: Average consumer debt is $20,233, spread over seven creditors.
  • Rhode Island: Average consumer debt is $20,130, spread over seven creditors.
  • Maine: Average consumer debt is $19,454, spread over six creditors.
  • Alaska: Average consumer debt is $19,225, spread over six creditors.
  • Colorado: Average consumer debt is $18,811, spread over six creditors.
  • South Dakota: Average consumer debt is $18,707, spread over seven creditors.
  • North Carolina: Average consumer debt is $18,536, spread over six creditors.
  • Connecticut: Average consumer debt is $17,334, spread over six creditors.
  • Wisconsin: Average consumer debt is $16,903, spread over five creditors.
  • Alabama: Average consumer debt is $16,591, spread over seven creditors.

The ten states that had the lowest debt totals for those seeking debt settlement or debt management services are:

  • California: Average consumer debt is $12,801, to five creditors.
  • Michigan: Average consumer debt is $13,328, to five creditors.
  • Mississippi: Average consumer debt is $13,512, to six creditors.
  • Vermont: Average consumer debt is $13,707, to five creditors.
  • Missouri: Average consumer debt is $13,737, to six creditors.
  • Indiana: Average consumer debt is $13,945, to five creditors.
  • Kentucky: Average consumer debt is $14,028, to six creditors.
  • Iowa: Average consumer debt is $14,099, to five creditors.
  • Virginia: Average consumer debt is $14,194, to five creditors.
  • Tennessee: Average consumer debt is $14,222, to six creditors.

Increased Spending, Increased Debt, Increasing Need for Debt Relief?

During the holiday season, many economists seemed cheered by the increases in consumer spending, but personal finance advocates may find the same numbers troubling. The Fed’s report shows that our nation’s revolving debt (which basically means credit card debt) rose by 3.5 percent in December of last year.

Further, though our total amount of revolving debt apparently dropped in 2010, it dropped by a smaller amount than in 2009. This could mean that people are optimistic about the job market and the economy in general, but it could also mean they’re turning to their credit cards for necessities they can no longer afford thanks to rising prices or decreased income - and risk taking on more debt than they can handle and heading towards bankruptcy.