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Rutger Responds

Rutger Responds: Stay on Top of Your Credit Score to Avoid Unwelcome Surprises

I’m always grateful during the holidays for the chance to relax, recharge and spend time with family. All that downtime also gives me a great chance to get caught up on all the little tasks I’ve been neglecting. This holiday season, I really wanted to tackle a personal finance checkup.

I regularly use the Credit Karma app to keep an eye on my spending and track my credit score. When I logged in to see how I was doing, I expected to see some extra spending (and perhaps a dip in my credit score) for December. But what shocked me was the amount of use on one particular store card—and the toll it had taken on my credit score.

First, I asked my wife if she’d used that card recently. She hadn’t. Checking back over the purchases, I realized neither of us had made them. So I called the card’s issuer. The operator transferred me directly to the fraud department, who asked almost no questions and said they’d immediately close the card. They promised to report the fraud to the credit bureau and that a new card would arrive in a few days.

After the weekend, my wife followed up with the card company only to find out that, oops, they hadn’t actually closed out the card. This time they promised not only would they close the card, they’d also send us a letter stating that there had been fraud on the card and that we were not responsible for any late payments. I’m still waiting to receive that letter. And my credit score still hasn’t bounced back.

Know the score

So how did this sudden dip in my credit score impact my life? Of course, there was the initial anxiety for both myself and my wife when we realized that our account was used fraudulently. Then there was all the time spent fixing the problem—waiting on hold, speaking to different departments, following up, and checking account statements. Luckily, in my case, it was (mostly) resolved in a few days, and I didn’t happen to be in the process of applying for a loan at the time. But the timing—and the consequences— could’ve been quite different. If I hadn’t bothered to check my credit score right then, who knows how long the fraud could’ve gone on?

Today, apps like Credit Karma and NerdWallet have simplified the process of keeping an eye on your credit score. And that’s a good thing: Monitoring your credit score regularly will reduce the chance that small issues turn into larger issues. And whether it’s actually fraud or just a case of overzealous holiday spending, knowing how different behaviors affect your credit score can be a powerful tool. For example, tracking my score over time has taught me that I can boost my credit score just by keeping my card balances below 10% of my cards’ credit limits. And if my balances creep higher, my score sinks lower.

This whole ordeal also served as a good reminder to review my credit report each year. It’s not uncommon to find mistakes: A Federal Trade Commission study found that one in five Americans have an error on their credit report. The three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—offer free copies of your report once a year through www.annualcreditreport.com. And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a handy checklist to guide you as you review your report.

Your credit score is a critical piece of your overall financial wellness. It affects your power to get a loan, refinance a mortgage and even land a job. Staying on top of how your score changes over time can help you understand how your actions affect your credit and spot potential issues before they become big problems. It could also help keep you from spending your vacation time on hold with your credit card’s fraud department.

So as this story continues, I will keep you updated on the progress and the impact on my credit score. I hope as you are reading this you will take this as your call to action to go check out your credit report and see if everything is correct. Let me know what you find – contact me here.

Read my last blog here.

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