When it comes to understanding your credit, it can feel as complicated as trying to solve a Rubik's cube. Frustrated by this confusion, many consumers neglect their credit, which can have a devastating impact on their financial futures.
I found this out several years ago when I found an error -- a canceled account that was being reported as delinquent -- hurting my credit. In my research, I have identified three sneaky things that are hurting other people's credit, too. Surprisingly, they could be fixed in 15 minutes or less.
First, you need to get your credit report, and you should go to AnnualCreditReport.com. From this site, you can request your free credit report once a year from the three major credit reporting agencies -- (Equifax (EFX), Experian and TransUnion). You can also access your credit score there, but you'll have to pay a small fee.
To get a free credit score, you can go to Credit.com or Creditkarma.com. Keep in mind that these two as well as a lot of other free sites offer a consumer education score, which isn't your actual FICO (FICO) score. This confused even me when I sought to find my real credit score. Your FICO score changes daily, so getting your credit scores from these free sites will give you a good gauge of approximately what your credit score is.
1. Wrong Information
The wrong personal information on your credit report could hurt your credit. This could be things like your name, your home address, where you've worked in the past or even your Social Security number. How does a wrong address hurt your credit? Your information may be mixed up with someone else's, especially if you have a common name, or are a "Jr." or "Sr." Or it could indicate identity theft -- and that could really wreak havoc with your credit. By reviewing your credit report, you'll be able to quickly see if there's any information that needs to be updated or changed.
2. High Balances Compared to Limits
Another sneaky thing that could hurt you is your credit card balances -- even those you pay in full. How can a credit card that you pay off hurt your credit? Issuers typically report your balances as of the statement closing date. But then those cards aren't due until about a month later. So in the meantime the balance on your reports may look high in comparison to your credit limits.
Generally you want the balance on each card to stay below 20 percent to 25 percent of your available credit. If you have a retail card with a small limit or a reward card that you use to pay for everything to earn lots of points, then this factor could come back to bite you.
So you need to either pay your charges off before the statement closing date or ask for a higher credit limit. Of course, a higher credit limit should not be an invitation to overspend. You won't improve your credit scores if you get in over your head with debt.
3. Outstanding or Delinquent Bills
The third sneaky thing that could hurt your credit score could be outstanding or delinquent bills. I canceled a gym membership when I moved, and it wasn't until I checked my credit report several years later that I found out the gym was marking me as being delinquent, which was hurting my credit. You'll want to check your credit report to make sure that you have no outstanding bills or any delinquent bills that you need to get addressed.
For my delinquent gym membership, I contacted its home office and explained that I had moved and their closest location was more than hours away. After that short and painless phone conversation, it removed the delinquency, and my credit was repaired.
Review your credit report and make sure you're not being marked for anything delinquent that could be damaging your credit. This could be old gym memberships like mine, credit cards or medical bills.
"I've seen numerous situations where consumers were shocked to learn that medical bills they thought their insurance had taken care of were on their credit reports as collection accounts, " warns Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education with Credit.com. "It doesn't matter if the amount is small. Any collection account can drop your credit score 25, 50, even 75 points or more."
Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card
3 Sneaky Things Hurting Your Credit (That You Can Easily Fix)
One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.
"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.
The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.
Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.
"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."
(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)
People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.
"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.
Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.
There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).
When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.
"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."
Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.
Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.
"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.