Check and Tidy Up Your Credit

Take some time with your free credit reports and computer to clean up outstanding items.

I have very good credit and I work hard to keep it that way. I don’t ever want to be denied credit if I need it.

Start With a Clean Shop

The best way to keep your credit rating good is to follow a few simple policies:

  • Don’t sign up for a lot of credit cards. People (and, more likely, computers) who evaluate your credit look at the credit limits set up on your active credit card accounts to see what your potential total liability could be. $5000 here, $12,000 there, $9000 somewhere else — all that adds up, even if your outstanding balance is $0. After all, who knows if you’ll suddenly go on a credit card spending spree and max out all your cards?
  • Minimize personal loan use. A car loan is secured by a car. A mortgage is secured by property. A home equity loan is also secured by property. But personal loans aren’t secured at all. So if you go bankrupt, that’s just another loan a potential creditor would have to wait behind.
  • Speaking of bankruptcy, don’t go there. Declaring bankruptcy should only be used in dire circumstances — for example, you don’t have medical insurance and surgery or long-term treatment for something serious gets you in debt above and beyond your eyeballs. (Frankly, I think the government should provide medical coverage for these serious matters, but don’t get me started on that argument.)
  • Pay everything on time. Everything. Always. I’ve automated my payments through my bank account (not through my creditor’s billpay system) whenever possible. If online billing is not available, I set up to send a minimum amount to cover monthly bills so nothing is ever forgotten.
  • Don’t go into more debt than you have the ability to pay. This seems like a no-brainer, but people do it all the time. All your credit card minimum payments add up, you know. When they get to a point beyond what you can pay each month, you’ll be in serious trouble. And if you have a variable interest mortgage, remember that the monthly payments will go up soon (if they haven’t done so already) and you need to budget for that big increase. (If possible, refinance at a fixed rate or one that remains fixed for at least a few years. INGDirect has a great deal right now that you might want to check out.)

If you want to minimize interest expenses on revolving credit like credit cards, pay them on time in full every month. Not only will you save money — no interest! — but each month you’ll find yourself paying for just the things you bought in the previous month. Sure beats taking a year to pay off things you might not even have anymore.

Review Your Credit Report Regularly

Today, I took a few hours to download, review, and initial investigations for my three credit reports. It was an enlightening experience that gave me some peace of mind.

The U.S. government mandates that TransUnion, experíon, and Equifax must give you their version of your credit report once a year for free. To get your reports, go to AnnualCreditReport.com and follow the instructions that appear onscreen. You’ll have to provide your social security number and some other identifying information. You’ll then go to the Web sites of each credit report provider you selected (I chose all three) to request, view, and print your credit report. I got TransUnion’s and Equifax’s without any problem, but when I tried to get experíon’s, I entered a wrong number for a security question and was told I’d get validation info in the mail to proceed. Still, two reports were enough to get me started.

And no, you don’t have to subscribe to anything or pay $7.95 to get your credit score. (I was tempted to see the FICO number, but did not succumb.)

I found some incorrect information regarding my name (Equifax also has me listed as Maria Chilingerian, although I did not take my husband’s last name when we married and do not use the name at all) and addresses (both had a rental property I own as one of my residential addresses on file). Equifax had a bunch of former employers that were kind of scrambled up. I also found a number of outstanding credit card accounts that I’d opened in a store to get the 20% purchase discount (Old Navy, Pier One) that had never been cancelled. Equifax had a single “adverse accounts” item for an old Alltel bill I’d paid late after a dispute. Oddly enough, it was marked as paid, even though it showed up as an adverse item.

The reports color-code payment history, making it pretty easy to see how good (or bad) you’ve been at paying your bills on time. I was very pleased to see that all of my bills indicated that all payments were on time. I really do try hard.

Both companies offer online dispute investigation for items on the credit report. In each case, I logged in with special identifying information, navigated to the investigation page, and entered correct data or checked off items in a list. For example, I asked both to remove that rental property address and told them that a few credit card accounts indicated as open were now closed.

Prevent, or at Least Stop, Identity Theft

If I’d seen evidence of identity theft, there were boxes to check and forms to fill out to indicate that an item on the report wasn’t mine. This is the main reason everyone should review their credit report periodically. You can see what’s going on in your name and make sure someone else isn’t using your fine credit to finance their round-the-world cruise or new car. But in my case, although the reports were lengthy (I have a habit of taking advantage of those 0% credit card offers for exactly one year), I was personally responsible for initiating every item on them.

I should note here that I once did have my credit card number stolen and used for a handful of purchases before American Express, with the help of Sears, caught on. The whole thing took place over a period of less than a week and I was not held liable for the two charges that got through. No sign of this appears on my credit report. But if someone had opened a new account using my name and other identification information, that would have been very easy to spot.

Don’t Wait. Do it Today.

With identity theft running rampant and interest rates rising, it’s a good idea to go through your credit reports and tidy them up.

After all, who knows when you’ll want to refinance your home, buy a new car, or take advantage of one of those 0% interest offers?

What do you think?