In 1949 Diner’s Club launched the first charge-card company. According to Dove Consulting, Americans now spend more with their credit cards – over $2 trillion yearly – than they do with cash. The creditworthiness of card users is an increasingly important issue for creditors and consumers alike.
Most people know that their creditworthiness is tracked on a credit report, but few understand how scoring works. The FICO score was developed by Fair Isaac & Co. to evaluate the likelihood that consumers will pay their bills. Scores range from 300 points (highest risk) to 850 points (lowest risk). According to Equifax, one of three major credit bureaus in the United States, FICO scores are the deciding factor on more than 75% of credit applications. In 2003, almost 50% of Americans scored between 700 and 800.
FICO scores are mathematically determined using five factors: previous credit performance, current debts, credit tenure (how long you’ve had credit), types of credit available and pursuit of new credit.
What’s on The Report and Why Should I Care?
An in-depth look at an Equifax report provides an overview of the information that can be obtained from any of the major credit reporting bureaus. An Equifax report is divided into seven sections.
The first section contains personal data such as current and previous addresses, social security number and employment history. This is crucial information for identity thieves, so protect it. Make sure it is accurate, and shred it thoroughly before discarding it.
The second section provides a summary of your credit history. It includes the number and type of accounts (both open and closed) that you hold and whether those accounts are in good standing. It also contains a record of your credit inquiries over the last year.
It may seem like the more accounts you have, the higher your credit score will be, but in this case more isn’t necessarily superior. Many financial institutions assume that you’ll use all of your available credit and factor payments that would be required to service that debt. You might have a dozen cards with zero balances and have no problem making monthly $2 000 mortgage payments, but if the bank factors your capability to pay on those cards your creditworthiness is diminished.
The third section provides detailed account information. It includes the name, type, number, opening date, balance and status of each account on your record. A breakdown of each account provides payment history, date of last activity and contact information for the credit issuer. If you disagree with any of this information, challenge it. Under federal law, the bureau has 30 days to respond. If your challenge is successful, offending information will be removed from your report.
The fourth section addresses inquiries into your credit history. Inquiries are classified as “hard” or “soft”. Hard inquiries are generated when you authorize companies to access your credit report. These are tracked, and a massive number of them in a one-year period will negatively affect your FICO score. Soft inquiries are generated when current creditors check your status, when card issuers review your file without being solicited and when you personally check your credit. These inquiries don’t impact your credit report.
The fifth section details accounts that have been turned over to credit agencies. The sixth section provides information about liens, wage garnishments or other judgments against you in federal, say or county court records.
The final section outlines how to dispute information on your credit report. Despite the claims of late-night infomercials there’s tiny you can do about delinquent accounts and other damaging information but wait. The Federal Trade Commission says most of this information remains on your report for seven years. Bankruptcy remains for ten years and lawsuit-related information remains until the suit is settled. You don’t need such difficulties: make payments in a timely manner and address all credit issues immediately.
How That Information Impacts Your Score
The credit reporting company Equifax cites late or missed payments, credit tenure and the size of account balances in relation to credit limits as major factors impacting your FICO score. You might have an excellent income and pay your cards off fully each month, but oversized balances might still negatively affect your score. In addition, if you don’t have a mortgage, car payments or other revolving debts it is unlikely that your FICO score will reach 850.
Check Your Credit
Credit reports can be obtained instantly on the web for less than $50. If you’re contemplating a significant buy such as property or a second home, run a credit check on yourself at least 90 days prior to your purchase. This gives you plenty of time to address any discrepancies that appear on the report.
The three major credit bureaus in the United States are Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. They operate independently, so request a report from each of them to get a complete picture of your credit history.
Despite advertisements that promise to mend bad credit, prevention is the best way to avoid problems. If it is accurate, there’s little you can do to clear negative information from your report but wait 7-10 years. Prevent damaging information from getting onto your credit report in the first place and improve your chance of obtaining future financing by making payments on time and addressing all issues that arise with creditors.