Even with no SSN, unpaid debt can ruin your credit

Your name, address, amount owed will be reported; greater chance for error

Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno
Barry Paperno is a freelance writer and credit scoring expert with decades of consumer credit industry experience, serving as consumer affairs manager for FICO (formerly Fair Isaac Corp.) and consumer operations manager for Experian. He writes "Speaking of Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about credit scoring and rebuilding credit, for CreditCards.com. His writings about credit scoring have appeared in The Huffington Post, MSN Money, CBS Money Watch and other consumer finance websites.

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Dear Speaking of Credit,
Hello. I am visiting the U.S. and don't have a Social Security number. Once I had to go to the hospital. Now I have a hospital bill and can't pay it. Can they report bad credit against me without an SSN, using only my name? Thanks. – Maggy


Dear Maggy,
Welcome to the U.S.! And welcome to our illustrious credit reporting and health-care billing systems. Along with what may be your first American hospital bill, by now you just may have – or may soon have – an all-American credit report that may be remaining in the U.S. long after you return home. Here’s why.

How your information gets to the credit bureau
Yes, a debt can appear on a credit report in your name and without a Social Security number. While hospitals and doctors’ offices don’t report their bills directly to credit bureaus, they typically transfer bills that go unpaid for a number of months to third-party collection agencies. These companies then report the debts to one, two or all three major U.S. credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Yours is a good question, as it’s commonly believed that a Social Security number is one of the requirements for a creditor or collection agency to report information to a credit bureau. In fact, to report your hospital bill to a credit bureau, a collection agency only needs to submit the amount you owe, your name and the address you provided when receiving the billed services.

How a credit report is created
As soon as your personal and credit information has been added to the credit bureau database, you essentially have a credit report. Then if additional or updated credit information of yours is reported to them, the credit bureau will match the personally identifying information accompanying that credit information with any similar information they have on file and include it as part of any subsequent requests for your credit report.

How you and others can access your credit file
For a prospective lender, bill collector, landlord or anyone authorized to view your credit report or score, the minimum information they will be required to provide the credit bureau will be your name and address. In the absence of a Social Security number, any additional information, such as previous addresses or date of birth, can be very useful in helping the credit bureau deliver a credit report that includes all pieces of your reported credit history. 

To obtain your own personal credit report, your name, address, date of birth and perhaps another piece or two of personally identifiable information for security purposes – but not a Social Security number – will be all the information required by the credit bureau. To obtain a credit report online, however, a Social Security number is required, so without it, plan to provide your request in writing via U.S. mail.

How credit information gets mixed up
A major downside of companies reporting debt without a Social Security number is that without this unique identifier, the credit information being submitted is more likely to wind up on the credit report of another consumer having a similar name and address. For this reason, a Social Security number is typically included in submissions to the credit bureaus whenever possible.

Resolving the debt before it becomes a problem
Even if you can’t pay the bill in full immediately, the hospital may allow you to make monthly payments until it’s paid off. This is the best option if you want to avoid having the debt sent to a collection agency and credit bureau. Or if it’s already gone to the collection agency, you may still have time to prevent it from being reported to the credit bureau by making payment arrangements with the agency.  

In almost all cases, whether you can pay it off or not, it’s best to communicate with the holder of the debt and either try to work it out as best you can before your U.S. credit rating is tarnished or, if nothing else, possibly prevent those dreaded collection calls and letters. This could be a particularly helpful step to take if you plan to stay in the U.S. for some time or return in the future, as a collection will remain in your credit file for 7.5 years from the date the bill first went past due.

What happens if you don’t pay?
What if you just can’t pay the bill and either are no longer in the U.S. or will be leaving shortly without plans to return? Rest assured that this medical bill is not likely to be assigned to a collection agency or credit bureau in your home country, as collection agencies and credit bureaus don’t tend to share this kind of information across borders.

See related: Credit-building tips for U.S. immigrants, Steps to remove credit report errors

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Updated: 01-20-2018