For people grappling with a history of debt payment problems, improving their credit record may seem like a daunting task. FDIC Consumer News offers these tips, which can help increase the chances of qualifying for better loan terms, lower insurance rates, and perhaps even a new job or apartment.
1. Order Your Free Credit Reports and Look For Errors
Credit reporting companies, often referred to as "credit bureaus," maintain reports that show how an individual handles certain aspects of his or her finances. Your credit report includes information on:
- How much credit you have available
- How much credit you are using
- Whether you pay loans and other bills on time
- Your payment history on closed accounts
- Any debt collections or bankruptcy filings
Credit bureaus and other companies use the information in your credit report to generate a credit score to predict, for example, how likely you are to repay your debts or how reliable you may be as a tenant.
Federal law requires credit-reporting companies to provide consumers with a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months, if requested. You can easily obtain your free credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) at one Web site – AnnualCreditReport.com – or by calling 1-877-322-8228.
Under other circumstances, such as being denied a loan or employment based on your credit report or if you believe you may be a fraud victim, you are also entitled to a free copy directly from the credit bureau that provided the initial report. Be cautious of costly subscriptions to additional credit-related services that you may be offered while requesting your credit report.
Because mistakes can easily happen, closely review your credit report(s) when you receive it. According to a 2012 study from the Federal Trade Commission, more than 25 percent of consumers surveyed identified errors on their credit reports that might affect their credit scores.
"It's important to dispute inaccurate information, in writing, with both the credit reporting company as well as with the original source of the information so that the error does not show up again," said Jennifer Dice, an FDIC Supervisory Consumer Affairs Specialist.
If you have a complaint about a credit reporting company, you can contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) at help.consumerfinance.gov/app/creditreporting/ask or by calling 1-855-411-2372.
2. Improve Your Credit History by Paying Your Bills on Time
Paying on time is one of the biggest contributors to your credit score. If you have a history of paying bills late, find out if your bank will send you an e-mail or text message reminding you when a payment is due. You may also consider having your payments automatically debited from your bank account.
Once you become current on payments, stay current. "The more you pay your bills on time after being late, the more your credit score should increase," Dice added. "The impact of past credit problems on your credit score fades as time passes and as your current timelines in paying bills is reflected on your credit report."
3. Reduce the Amounts You Owe
You can get on track toward a better score by paying down balances owed.
It takes some discipline, so start by getting organized. Make a list of all of your accounts and debts (perhaps using your credit report, if it's accurate, and recent statements) to determine how much you owe and the interest rate you are being charged. You may be able to reduce your interest costs by paying off the debts with the highest interest rate first, while still making the minimum payments (if not more) on your other accounts.
Also consider how to limit your use of credit cards in favor of cash, checks, or a debit card. "While regular, responsible use of your credit card may help your credit score, it is best to keep your balance low enough so that you can pay the account balance in full, on time, every month," suggested Heather St. Germain, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist.
4. Consider Free or Low-Cost Help from Reputable Sources
Counseling services are available to help consumers budget money, pay bills, and develop a plan to improve their credit report. Be cautious of counseling services that advise you to stop making payments to your creditors or to pay the counselors instead (so they can negotiate on your behalf with the lender). These programs can be costly and may result in your credit score becoming even worse.
5. Beware of Credit Repair Scams
Con artists lure innocent victims in with false promises to "erase" a bad credit history in a short amount of time, but there are no quick ways to remove credit problems on your record that are legitimate. "You'll also know you've encountered credit repair fraud if the company insists you pay upfront before it does any work on your behalf or it encourages you to give false information on your credit applications," said St. Germain. In general, before doing business with a for-profit credit repair company, learn how you can improve your own credit history at little or no cost.
For more information from the FDIC, the CFPB, or the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies on topics such as credit reports, credit scores, fixing a credit problem, and how to choose a credit counselor, go to mymoney.gov and search by topic.