Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of “Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families.” She writes “Opening Credits,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.
Dear Opening Credits,
First, bless you for helping people. My name is Robert, and my mom ruined my credit when I was 18. I can’t even get a credit card. I am a brand new engineer making money these days, and I need to fix my credit. How do I check my credit, and how do I fix it? I have the money to start my new life, but not the credit. How do I make things right? Thank you very much for your time. — Robert
Don’t be so committed to the notion that you can’t get a credit card. Even with damaged credit, it’s usually possible to qualify for some type of account. However, before I get to which type I think you should pursue, I’d like you do a few things:
1. Congratulate yourself. You made it through college and have secured a well-paying job in your field. In this economy, that’s an impressive achievement.
2. Open a savings account. Sounds like you’re a young adult and, as such, you might have few obligations and expenses. Live low and begin to sock money away aggressively. Aim for accumulating at least three months worth of essential living expenses, and once you have that, keep saving. You’ll soon see why I urge you to do this.
4. Highlight areas of concern. I presume that your mother obtained a credit card in your name without your knowledge or consent, and then she charged and didn’t pay. Now you have late payments, charged-off accounts and collection accounts on the report for which you were not responsible? Mark all erroneous line items.
5. Dispute everything that’s not right. The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the right to dispute errors and have them removed from your credit file. So jump on the credit bureaus’ websites and start disputing. If you have any supporting documents, make copies and send them. The bureaus have 30 days to investigate, and if the results are in your favor, they will expunge the marks. You can expedite the process by also contacting the reporting creditor or collector, telling them that you are a victim of identity theft, and request that they stop reporting the information.
6. Put a statement on your credit file. If, for some reason, you don’t get the outcome you deserve the first time, keep disputing — but also add a statement to your credit reports. In 100 words or fewer, explain why you are not responsible for the derogatory information. Though it won’t help your score, it can make a difference to future employers and landlords who may be pulling them.
7. Consider adding a fraud alert or credit freeze. If you think mom might still be a threat, you can add a fraud alert to your credit file. With it in place, potential lenders will have to be extra careful about verifying your identity. A credit freeze is more extreme — lenders won’t be able to see your reports at all unless they contact you first.
Now for obtaining a new credit card that really does belong to you: I strongly suggest that you go for a secured card account now, using the money you’ve saved as a deposit. This is a really sweet option as they’re fairly easy to qualify for. Also, since you haven’t established yourself in the world of credit yet, an unsecured card might be tough to get — and even if you did, the terms would probably be unattractive.
Once you have a card, charge regularly and pay the balance off each month. You’ll be replacing incorrect, negative information with that which is correct and positive, causing your report and scores to improve.
Thanks for reaching out to me, Robert. These are painful letters to receive, and they are staggeringly common. In fact, I get so many I wonder if I need to write a book specifically for people who’ve been financially harmed by their loved ones. Clearly it’s scourge that needs more attention.
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