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Credit not right? Time to schedule a credit card checkup

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Is your credit not feeling quite right? If so, it may be overdue for an annual checkup. Fortunately, a thorough exam doesn't involve expensive co-payments or booking an appointment with a hard-to-reach specialist: This Rx is strictly DIY. (Download your own "Credit card checkup list")

Credit not right? Time to schedule a credit card checkup

1.     Access your reports
To start, pull copies of your credit report from the three major credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). You can get one free report per year from each via www.annualcreditreport.com. Once you've got them, look for:

  • Errors. Any mysterious accounts? Personal information such as your name and addresses incorrect? Lawsuits you were never a party to? Dispute all inaccuracies. (We have sample letters that challenge credit report inaccuracies).
  • True, but derogatory information. Evidence of late payments, charge-offs, and bills that went into a collection agency should automatically drop off after seven years from the date of last activity. See items that shouldn't appear anymore? Request that the bureau correct the report.
  • Dormant accounts. While there's no reason to close unused cards (maintaining older accounts can boost your credit score), ensure the balance is $0 and monitor it for signs of identity theft. "If you spot something that doesn't look right, contact the creditor involved or the appropriate credit reporting company directly," recommends Lucy Duni, vice president of consumer education for TrueCredit.com, TransUnion's education division.

2. Get your scores
Next, check your FICO scores. For a nominal fee, you can access them with your reports (except the Experian FICO score, which is no longer available to consumers), via MyFICO.com, or directly from the credit bureau websites. They range from a low of 300 to a high of 850, and a good score right now is one that's firmly in the mid-700s. Here's the treatment if they're not doing so well (in order of greatest scoring weight):

  • Delete your debt.
  • Pay on time, every time.
  • Establish a long history of using credit.
  • Hold a healthy variety of credit accounts.
  • Limit credit inquiries to just a few.

3. Contact your creditors
Call and confirm your current credit line, as many limits have been reduced lately. If you have a rewards card, inquire about your point accumulation and expiration dates. Millions of cardholders forfeit their benefits because they forget about them or the program changes, so find out if the issuing bank offers regular e-mail updates and sign up if they do. Re-evaluate your needs, too -- perhaps cash back is more valuable to you than airline miles now -- and adjust your rewards accordingly.

Join the 700-plus credit score club
Your keys to getting into the 700-plus credit score club

Having a solid credit history with a credit score over 700 will open doors to money-saving opportunities -- from low-interest mortgages and loans to lower APR credit cards, better insurance rates and even jobs. Here are a slew of tips that can help get you and keep you in the get and keep a great credit score.

4. Study your statement
There's a lot more important information on your bill than "payment due." Scan your statement carefully, looking for your:

  • Balance. This is essential discovery, as carrying more than 35 percent of your credit limit will bring down your FICO score.
  • Annual percentage rate (APR). As with your credit limit, your interest rate may have been adjusted.
  • Terms. Has your grace period changed? Is there a new fee structure?

If anything looks odd, wrong or unfair, contact your creditor immediately. Request an explanation and try to negotiate better credit rates and terms. However, you won't have much bargaining power if you've had late or delinquent payments.

5. Review your credit use
As you conduct this checkup, also inspect your own behavior. If you spot such unhealthy habits such as skipping payments, stop now. "One of the most important contributors to a strong credit history is paying bills on time. Regardless of your ability to pay the full balance, it is important to continue making at least the minimum payment on time each month," says Duni. For overwhelming debt, consider credit counseling. A debt repayment plan, balance transfer or even a consolidation loan may be prescribed. 

Once this yearly examination is complete, care for your credit regularly. With the industry and economy so volatile, it may be more fragile than you think.

See related: Credit card checkup list, Consumers lose access to major credit score, 10 things you need to know about credit scores, credit reports, Credit score formulas not changing as credit limits slashed, Tracking reward program changes before they happen

Updated: May 27, 2009


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