Coronavirus makes credit monitoring more important
It’s always important to stay on top of your credit score. And during a major economic crisis? Doubly so.
If you’re having trouble keeping up with loan payments, keep a close eye on your credit standing.
The big three credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — have all made free credit reports available on a weekly basis through April 2021.
The new access is a big change from the regular, once-a-year standard.
The new option means you can check your credit standing at no cost more than 50 times in the coming year.
How to get your free weekly credit reports
You can get free credit reports at the government-mandated site annualcreditreport.com. This is the only truly free, no-strings-attached credit report available to all U.S. consumers.
In addition, each of the three big credit reporting agencies has created a special area to address coronavirus questions. Here, you can find links to each of their credit monitoring services.
- Equifax COVID-19 Credit and Financial Resources Center
- Experian COVID-19 Resources & Credit Education
- TransUnion COVID-19 Support Center
The coronavirus and free credit reports
Coronavirus has rapidly developed from a medical emergency into a major economic emergency. Millions of people have lost their jobs because of the virus. Businesses across the country have closed.
Traditional credit reporting standards have been changed as a result.
For example, new rules that have allowed homeowners to pause their mortgage payments, also protect their credit by saying skipped mortgage payments can’t be reported as “late” or “missed.”
But what about all your other debts?
Not every industry has the same consumer protections as mortgage lending. If you’re in danger of missing credit card, auto loan, personal loan, or other debt payments due to COVID-19, your credit score could be at serious risk.
Perhaps more than ever you need to check your credit reports to see that they are accurate. Access to these free weekly credit reports is a huge help.
Credit report errors are real
Free credit reports are essential for every consumer. They give you the opportunity to check for factual errors, items that are out-of-date, identity theft issues, and fraud.
Such problems can unfairly lower credit scores. And lower scores mean higher interest rates for houses, cars, credit cards, and other forms of borrowing.
So, how does a credit report help? By showing you a detailed list of the factors that make up your score.
Believe it or not, credit reports contain mistakes fairly often. Some are worse than others.
One government study found errors in as many as 5% of all credit reports, with an average 25-point drop in credit score.
One government study found some credit report errors so bad that they reduced credit scores by over 100 points.
More commonly, the study found that errors were found in 5% of all credit reports and that the typical impact was a 25-point loss.
This is a big deal, as 25 points might be enough to move someone into a lower credit score tier where lenders charge higher borrowing costs.
If you’ve been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, a falsely-low credit score will make it even harder to find your footing again on the other side of this crisis.
How to check for errors on your credit report
There are a number of potential problems to look for when checking your credit report.
The first thing to look for is accuracy. Make sure everything on your credit report is correct, and nobody else’s credit issues have been accidentally attributed to you.
- Is your information being reported? Be sure the report reflects only your own information. There may be a big difference between “John Jones” and “John J. Jones”
- Does the report show your correct address? What about past addresses?
- Is the Social Security number accurate?
- Are there any items for unfamiliar companies? If you live in Atlanta did you really buy coffee in Milwaukee last week?
- How old is the information for each item?
You should also comb through your report for any falsely-reported debts that could be affecting your score. For example:
- Closed accounts reported as open
- The same account listed more than one time
- False accounts listed due to identity theft
- Accounts listed with incorrect balances or credit limits
- Accounts listed with the wrong open or close dates
- Missed payments that you actually paid
You can find a fuller list of items to look for in our article “Errors or fraud: How do I remove derogatory items on my credit report?“
What if you find a problem?
Contact the credit reporting agency immediately. Ask what information and documents they need for you to file a written dispute.
The credit reporting agencies generally have 30 days to respond to written disputes, but there is a big exception. Credit reporting agencies do not have to respond to ones they regard as frivolous.
So don’t contest a problem account on your report if you know it’s accurate.
How long do credit issues last on your report?
Some items can stay on a credit report longer than others. The standards look like this, according to the Federal Trade Commission:
- A credit reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years
- Bankruptcy information lives on for 10 years
- There is no time limit on reporting information about criminal convictions
- Information about a lawsuit or an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs or, whichever is longer
- There’s no time limit for the information you supply if you apply for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year or if you have applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance
Watch out for scammy “free credit reporting” services
Be careful! There are imposter sites posing as “free credit report” services that will take your money and information.
Says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
- “Some ‘imposter’ sites use terms like ‘free report’ in their names;
- Others have URLs that purposely misspell annualcreditreport.com in the hope that you will mistype the name of the official site.
- Some of these ‘imposter’ sites direct you to other sites that try to sell you something or collect your personal information.”
There are also scammers who will claim to be affiliated with Annualcreditreport.com.
“If you get an email, see a pop-up ad, or get a phone call from someone claiming to be from annualcreditreport.com or any of the three nationwide credit reporting companies... It’s probably a scam.”
The FTC explains that “the nationwide credit reporting companies will not send you an email asking for your personal information.
“If you get an email, see a pop-up ad, or get a phone call from someone claiming to be from annualcreditreport.com or any of the three nationwide credit reporting companies, do not reply or click on any link in the message. It’s probably a scam.”
Free credit reports after April 2021
Free weekly credit reports are set to be available until April of 2021. After that, you’ll still have free access to your credit report to monitor for errors and red marks. You just won’t be able to see it quite as often.
Here’s how you can access your credit report outside of the temporary weekly reports created in response to coronavirus:
- Government rules allow individuals to obtain one credit report every 12 months from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs). You can get your free reports at AnnualCreditReport.com
- Starting in 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that “everyone in the U.S. can get 6 free credit reports per year through 2026 by visiting the Equifax website or by calling 1-866-349-5191. That’s in addition to the one free Equifax report (plus your Experian and TransUnion reports) you can get at AnnualCreditReport.com”
- The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) says consumers are entitled to a free credit report in certain circumstances, but only if you ask. The special circumstances include:
- If a person has taken adverse action against you because of information in your credit report;
- Identity theft cases and the placement of a fraud alert in your file;
- If your file contains inaccurate information as a result of fraud;
- If you are on public assistance; or
- If you are unemployed but expect to apply for employment within 60 days
Even when the economy is stable and you’re not so worried about your debt and income, it’s important to keep an eye on your credit.
It’s more common to find errors on a credit report than you might think, and those blemishes can jeopardize your standing with banks, lenders credit cards, and others.
Remember: Even a few-point difference can put you in a different credit “tier,” and those tiers (“poor, fair, good, excellent”) determine your borrowing costs and what kinds of loans you qualify for.