According to data recently collected by TransUnion, many are still weathering a brutal financial storm thanks to COVID-19. Of the 58% who report being financially impacted, 70% are concerned about their ability to pay current bills and expect to be unable to pay within the next 5.8 weeks, on average. With numbers that staggering, will COVID-19 make credit scores crumble?
Not necessarily. While the true impact remains to be seen, there are a few proactive steps that can be taken to potentially lessen the blow.
Here are a few you may want to consider.
Check your credit reports regularly.
In order to see the full picture of how your credit has been impacted by COVID-19, it’s important to keep an eye on both your credit report and credit score. Your credit scores — of which you have several — are directly impacted by what is on your credit reports. Each of the three Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs) — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — provide these reports. They each operate independently and may receive different information from different creditors. For this reason, it’s important to keep an eye on all three credit reports.
While you are normally entitled to one free credit report annually from each CRA at AnnualCreditReport.com, between now and April 2021 you can receive all three reports weekly.
Did you spot an error? Initiate a dispute immediately.
CRAs manage the credit profiles of millions of consumers, so there is always a chance the information in your credit report isn’t accurate or complete. The good news is, you are able to dispute any incorrect information you find.
- Here is how to initiate a TransUnion dispute.
- Here is how to initiate an Equifax dispute.
- Here is how to initiate an Experian dispute.
Know the terms of your forbearance or deferment period.
If you’ve spoken to your lenders or creditors about needing financial assistance, you’ve likely heard the term forbearance or deferment. In practice , forbearance and deferment generally result in your payments being temporarily suspended until a later date— although typically deferment also pauses interest accrual, while forbearance usually does not. However, these terms are often used interchangeably and your terms may be different.
Make sure you fully understand the terms of any agreement you enter into with a lender or creditor. Here are a few questions to ask:
- How long will my payments be paused for?
- Do I have the option to extend the forbearance or deferment period?
- Will interest continue to accrue while my payments are paused?
Clarify what happens after the forbearance or deferment period.
Forbearance or deferment can be extremely helpful if you’re struggling financially. However, it’s important to note the payments you don’t make during this time are generally not just forgiven — they typically must be made up in some way or another.
For instance, if your mortgage is federally backed (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, FHA, VA, and USDA loans), under the CARES Act you may have a few different options for repaying the amount owed:
- You should be given 6-12 months to repay the number of payments you missed (depending on the type of loan).
- The length of your mortgage can be extended by the number of months you were in forbearance.
- You may be required to repay the number of payments missed in one lump sum when you pay off the original loan.
[See more potential options depending on the type of federally backed loan you have here.]
Whether you have a privately held mortgage, or another type of loan or form of credit you’ve put into forbearance or deferment, it’s important to understand what your options are for repayment and what you qualify for. (Not everyone qualifies for the same options.) Otherwise you could be blindsided when you least expect it.
Add a consumer statement to your credit report.
Experiencing the financial impact of a job loss, drop in income, or medical issues? You may want to explain this in a 100-word statement and add it to your credit reports. Known as a “consumer statement,” this can add context to potentially negative marks on your report and may allow for a bigger conversation with future lenders and creditors.
According to Experian, there are two types of statements you can provide:
- Account-specific statements to explain negative reporting for one account.
- General statements to explain why there are negative reports for multiple accounts over a certain period of time (due to extended unemployment, for example).
Worried about identity theft? Put a credit freeze in place.
In times of crisis scammers tend to come out in full force — and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. According to the FTC, between January 1 and April 15 there have been over 18,000 complaints related to COVID-19 scams, resulting in the loss of $13.44 million.
One way you can protect your credit from identity theft is to put a credit freeze in place. This should help you restrict access to your credit report, making it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. It does not prevent a thief from gaining access to or making charges to existing accounts, however.
This is a free tool, but remember — you may also be blocked from applying for new credit until you take the steps to lift the freeze. So if you know you will need to access your credit soon, this may not be the best option for you.
Stay in communication with your creditors and lenders — before there’s a problem.
If you’re having trouble keeping up with your financial obligations, you certainly aren’t the only one. Many creditors and lenders are willing to help, but it’s important to have a conversation before a payment is missed or past due. If you are already in a forbearance or deferment program but need additional assistance, see if your creditor or lender will allow an extension.
It’s important to note, while there are credit reporting protections under the CARES Act, these may not apply if your account is already in default.
Understand what your protections should be.
Some student loan borrowers receiving temporary loan relief under the CARES Act recently discovered their accounts had been reported as delinquent by their lender. While these lenders may be working to right the situation, it sheds light on the importance of monitoring your credit and understanding which protections you’re entitled to under the CARES Act. You can read more here.
The Bottom Line
COVID-19 has turned plenty of things upside down, but your credit doesn’t have to be one of them. Stay ahead of the game by monitoring your credit reports, disputing incorrect information, and contacting your lenders and creditors as your financial situation changes.
[Take control of your finances. Get all the facts about credit scores and credit reports.]
Featured Image Credit: Newnow / iStock.