How did that get on my credit report?
Credit reports can still contain surprises, even under new reporting standards
Personal finance journalist with an eye for industry news
An unpaid parking ticket is unlikely to hurt your credit, but don’t ignore your homeowners’ association dues or forget to pay your streaming TV bill.
In the past, fines for overdue library books and traffic violations could be reported to credit bureaus and appear as black marks on your credit report. However, new rules implemented by the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – prohibit the reporting of any debt that didn’t arise from a consumer’s agreement to pay.
“It’s going to be a lot harder if not impossible for a lot of those kinds of items to show up on your credit report,” said Eric Ellman, senior vice president of public policy and legal affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA).
Despite the new standards, library fines and traffic tickets can still occasionally find their way onto consumers’ credit reports, especially if they’re incorrectly reported as debts. Fortunately, there are ways to get them removed so you can quickly recover any damage they inflict on your credit score.
Although some credit report surprises are largely a thing of the past, other unexpected items have surfaced in recent years. Many of them appear when you fail to meet a contractual payment obligation, and it gets turned over to a third-party collection agency.
Unexpected items that can appear on your credit report
- Unpaid fees for streaming media subscriptions, such as Netflix, Hulu or Spotify
- Unpaid fees for box delivery services, such as Blue Apron or Dollar Shave Club
- Unpaid membership fees, including your local gym or neighborhood association or a dating site
- Positive payment information from your utility or cellphone provider or landlord
- Someone else’s credit account information, due to a mixed-file error
‘Stranger Things’ that hurt your credit: Unpaid Netflix, dating site fees
Let’s say you were so wrapped up in binge-watching a hot new TV series on your favorite streaming service that you spaced on your monthly bill. Or, you finally met the love of your life via an online dating profile and you were so swept up in romance that you abandoned your account and stopped paying for it.
These service providers won’t just wait for you to start paying again – eventually, they’ll report your unpaid bills to a collection agency. And a collection item is a credit score killer, potentially costing you 100 points. (It also stays on your credit report for up to seven years, though the damage lessens over time as more positive information is added.)
Marketing professional Nate Masterson saw his credit score drop from 750 to the low-600s after he canceled a credit card linked to several streaming media subscriptions he owned.
It was a particularly busy time for Masterson, and he forgot that the card was being used for his streaming accounts when he closed it. But the subscription providers eventually cut off his services due to nonpayment and turned the accounts over to collection agencies. He didn’t realize that or the damage his credit score had suffered until he applied for a car loan.
“I got a raise at work and decided to treat myself to a newer version of the car I was leasing,” Masterson said. “Because of my credit report I was offered an outrageous interest rate that blew me away. I asked myself how could I possibly have done this to my credit score.”
Luckily, Masterson was able to get the collections removed from his credit report after contacting his card issuer to try to resolve the matter. His credit score was restored to 750 and he was eventually offered a more favorable rate on a new car.
A homeowner fee fight can hurt, but getting sued for it probably won’t
Your credit can also suffer if you give up on a gym membership and forget to close the account, or if you’re in a dispute with your homeowners’ association and refuse to pay your dues.
“Those are contracts that you’ve entered, and they absolutely can be reported onto your file,” said Terry Clemans, executive director of the National Consumer Reporting Association.
However, being taken to court over an unpaid debt has less chance of affecting your credit than it did prior to the new reporting rules. That’s because all public records must contain your name, address and either your Social Security number or date of birth to be added to your credit report.
Clemans noted that federal, state and local authorities have made efforts in recent years to strip personally identifiable information from court records to protect people from identity theft. As a result, court records typically don’t meet the minimum standards outlined by the credit reporting rules, and nearly all civil judgment data is now excluded from consumers’ credit reports.
On-time utility payments on your credit report? Not likely
If you forget to pay a cellphone or electricity bill, it should come as no surprise when it eventually ends up on your credit report as a collection item. But if you’ve been a perfect payer and that information gets reported to the credit bureaus, that’s a shocker.
The credit reporting industry has long advocated for the reporting of consumers’ positive payment information from utilities, telecommunication providers, renters and landlords. Credit scoring firms FICO and VantageScore have developed models that incorporate alternative payment data to help lenders gauge the creditworthiness of consumers who are otherwise unscoreable.
However, alternative data has failed to take off in a significant way. In some states, utilities are legally barred from reporting positive payment information. Cellphone service providers face fewer regulatory hurdles, but it’s not common for them to report information to credit bureaus.
“When you see telecoms and utilities report, it’s typically when an account was closed and sent to collections,” Clemans said. “As far as full file reporting, it’s virtually non-existent.”
On the other hand, if you faithfully pay your rent on time each month, it’s possible you could use that information to build your credit. There are now a handful of online services, including RentTrack, RentPayment and Rental Kharma, that enable consumers to have their on-time rent payments reported to the bureaus.
The worst kind of credit report surprise: An error
There’s one type of credit report surprise that will likely never go away: errors. The vast troves of data that creditors and credit bureaus handle each day – including stacks of records of people who have common names and addresses – make mistakes an ever-present threat.
“There are always going to be mistakes made that are going to create errors in the system,” he said. “There is a balancing act that the bureaus have to do between making sure they have the right consumer … and not having too much data available that it could get into the wrong hands.”
A credit report error can be severely damaging, particularly if your file is mixed up with someone who’s recently filed for bankruptcy or is generally irresponsible with credit.
How to prevent a credit report rude awakening
Consumers have easy access to myriad online subscription services nowadays. An occasional whiff on a payment because you’re busy or forgot you signed up for the service is understandable. But if you never settle the debt, it could come back to haunt you in the form of a black mark on your credit report later on.
One way to avoid missing a monthly subscription fee is to set up automatic monthly payments with a credit or debit card, if the service allows it. Be sure to change your payment information or suspend the service if you decide to cancel your card. There are also several apps that can help you shut off recurring charges that you either forgot about or are having difficulty canceling due to poor customer service.
As for credit report errors, they can’t be prevented, but you can minimize their damage by keeping a close eye on your credit and filing a dispute as soon as you spot an error. You can get a free copy of your credit report at CreditCards.com or one from each of the three major bureaus per year at AnnualCreditReport.com. For an extra level of protection, you may consider purchasing a monthly credit monitoring package (just don’t forget to pay for it).
“Much like consumers should be empowered to monitor their personal health by getting checkups … they should also be vigilant about their financial health, review their credit histories and consider a credit monitoring service,” said CDIA’s Ellman.
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