Healing a Wounded Credit Score
by Tara Siegel Bernard
Millions of consumers have fallen out of favor with the credit scoring gods.
Some lost their jobs or were just overwhelmed by mounting debt. Others got caught up in the real estate bubble or had major medical bills. Whatever the reason, the rising number of foreclosures, short sales, late credit card payments and the ultimate credit sin -- bankruptcies -- have left black marks on credit reports most everywhere.
More from NYTimes.com:
• A Guide to Complaints That Get Results
• Retain Your Records No Longer Than You Must
• Take a Few Hours and Unlock Some Cash
So what can these people do to repair their credit?
The simple answer is to focus on the information that is used to generate the all-powerful FICO score -- the measure used most frequently by traditional lenders to determine creditworthiness. Its scale runs from 300 points to 850 points; the higher the score, the better your credit standing. "FICO is still the 500-pound gorilla," said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com. "In 2011, the best way to get credit from the mainstream lenders is to have a good FICO score."
Consumers can hope that the banks will eventually consider alternatives to the traditional FICO score, which was developed by Fair Isaac Corporation and has been in wide use for about two decades. After all, as banks regain their appetite for lending, they will be looking for ways to differentiate between borrowers with the same scores, some of whom are temporarily struggling and others who chronically have trouble with money.
[Click here to check current credit card offers, including rates and terms.]
For now, though, the FICO score reigns. The best antidote to a poor score is time. Still, there are a half dozen ways to speed the process, or, at the least, avoid even more credit trouble.
What to Do
Assess Your Situation
Before you even start to think about rehabilitating your credit, make sure that you can pay your bills on time and not do any more harm. If keeping up with your credit card bills is still an issue, then call the issuer, explain your situation and try to negotiate payments you can afford. Ask the issuer how that will be reported to the major three credit bureaus: Not paid as agreed, which can hurt your score? Or will the new terms say that you are now paying as agreed?
"You have to get in writing that this is what they agreed to do," said Mechel Glass, director of education at CredAbility, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. Ditto for other providers, like utility companies.
Then, assess all the damage by getting a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus through annualcreditreport.com. Each of the major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- generate their own FICO scores based on the data they collect. Two versions of your FICO score are also available for $19.95 each, through myFico.com.
How far your credit score has fallen will depend on where it started, as well as the frequency and severity of your credit mistakes. If you had almost perfect credit, but because of the loss of a job your credit card bills ended up at a collection agency, you can expect to lose anywhere from 80 to 150 points from your FICO score. A short sale or foreclosure? Both, Mr. Ulzheimer said, "would turn a FICO 790 into a FICO 590 overnight."
Clean Up Your Score
Start with the low-hanging fruit. Let's say you were late paying a bill from a company that no longer exists, or a bank that has since merged with a larger institution. If the credit reporting bureaus cannot verify the accuracy of that black mark, they are required to remove it. "Not only does it have to be correct, but it has to be verifiable," Mr. Ulzheimer said.
Next, focus on paying off the loans -- namely, credit cards -- that will help give your score the most lift. Paying off a mortgage, a student loan or other installment debts, like car loans, feels good but that won't necessarily do much for your credit score.
[Secrets of People With Great Credit Scores]
You also want to get your so-called debt utilization rate into good shape. FICO considers how the total amount of debt on each of your credit cards compares with your total available credit. The credit score "elite" -- that is, people with FICO scores above 760 -- typically don't have debts that exceed 7 percent of their available credit. But if you are at 50 percent and can get the rate down to 30 percent, that will help.
Leave a Note
Because prospective employers may pull a copy of your credit report, consider adding the equivalent of a doctor's note to each of your reports explaining your hardship, like a job loss. All three major credit bureaus allow you to add a brief statement through their Web sites. FICO doesn't consider these statements when formulating scores, however, so don't expect it to sway lenders.
Get Secured Cards
It will obviously be hard to get a traditional credit card when you have a poor credit history. Secured cards, if used strategically, can help nurse your credit back to health more quickly. These cards require you to put a set amount of money in a bank account, say $250 or $500, which is used as collateral. And the amount of available credit should be equivalent to the amount on deposit.
"What is the most predictive and powerful in your score are the things you've done most recently," Mr. Ulzheimer said. "That cuts both ways. If you add a secured card and you pay it religiously and the balance is low, it will help your score a lot more quickly than if you do nothing."
But read the fine print before signing up. Consumer advocates said some unscrupulous card issuers have charged the security deposit to the card. And be sure the issuer reports your payment information to the big three credit bureaus, since not all do.
Curtis Arnold, the founder of CardRatings.com, recommended two cards, both of which report payments to the big three: the Orchard Bank Secured MasterCard, which has an attractive interest rate of 7.9 percent, waives the annual fee in the first year and charges a moderate $35 annually thereafter. He also likes the Citi Secured MasterCard, largely because it offers an interest rate on the security deposit equivalent to an 18-month certificate of deposit, which he says is an industry first.
Talk to a Credit Union
These institutions may be more willing to work with members who have checkered histories. Their offerings vary, but they may be more likely to consider alternative credit scores, offer free credit counseling or have products tailored for people with poor credit histories. "Certainly, many credit unions have credit builder or rebuilder loans, often structured as a loan with a built-in savings component so that a person gradually builds up funds that can act as partial collateral," said Clifford Rosenthal, the president of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, a trade association representing credit unions in low- and moderate-income areas.
There are other credit reporting agencies and services that -- for a monthly fee, and sometimes a hefty one -- will collect your payment history from sources that aren't included in your traditional credit report or FICO score. At this point, however, most mainstream lenders base their decisions on the big three bureaus' reports and FICO scores. So you're better off saving your money. "All of those companies say they will report your accounts to a credit bureau, and they may be doing that," Mr. Ulzheimer said. "But if it is not the big three, then who cares?"
This could change, of course, as banks become more willing to lend and potentially open to using other means to identify promising borrowers. Lenders may begin to consider rental payment histories, for instance. Or they may be willing to look at alternative credit scores that incorporate payment information that doesn't show up on traditional credit reports.
[Best Credit Cards For 2011]
Or perhaps one lender will permit so-called shoe box credit: Did you know that if you walk into a lender with a box stuffed with receipts proving that you paid your cable bill, for instance, that they are required to consider it? They aren't obliged to give you a loan, but the regulation says they must consider the information.
What to Avoid
Credit Repair Offers
You may have seen the advertisements for credit repair companies on the Web. "We really tell our clients to stay away," said Ms. Glass, of CredAbility. One re-emerging scam, she says, involves companies that claim they can clean up your credit. Some companies manage to do this for a limited time by disputing all of your accounts, sending letters to the bureaus claiming the accounts aren't valid. But after the credit bureaus validate the accounts and debts, they reappear on your report and your score will plummet again.
Legitimate credit repair companies exist, and they can assist in disputes. But there's nothing they can do that you can't do yourself at little cost. Besides, these companies often besiege the bureaus with letters, and the bureaus are allowed to ignore what they believe are frivolous disputes. Be wary of companies that do not disclose in writing that you can do these tasks free on your own, that guarantee results or that try to charge you before they perform any services.
Despite the tighter credit environment, Chi Chi Wu, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, said the center was still receiving complaints about credit cards aimed at people with poor credit histories.
"These cards are pitched as a way to build credit, but with these kind of steep fees and high interest rates, there is a good chance they will hurt," she said.