Through April 20, 2021, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax will offer all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through www.AnnualCreditReport.com to help you protect your financial health during the sudden and unprecedented hardship caused by COVID-19.
Your credit report and credit score may not be at the top of your priority list amid more pressing concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. That's absolutely reasonable.
However, when the world emerges from this crisis (and it will!), and normal plans and dreams resume, you may be seeking credit in one form or another—financing a home, buying a car, starting or continuing a college education, and so on.
Taking a few steps today can help safeguard your credit for those better times to come. Here's what you need to know.
Will Late Payments Be Reported During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Many, many borrowers are facing the prospect of missing payments as a consequence of income loss during the pandemic. If you're among them, there's a good chance your lenders are prepared to work with you to provide payment relief without causing late payments to appear on your credit reports.
A wide array of creditors, including mortgage lenders and credit card issuers, are offering temporary payment relief during the pandemic. You must contact your lender(s) to take advantage of these programs, which include:
Under normal payment forbearance, lenders allow qualifying borrowers up to 12 months of suspended or reduced loan payments to help them recover from a financial hardship. After that forbearance period, the borrower is expected to repay all excused payments, plus interest and possible fees, in a lump sum or in up to 12 installments.
Qualifying for forbearance under ordinary circumstances typically requires the borrower to prove financial hardship, to show that the hardship is temporary, and to give evidence that they'll be able to resume regular payments at the end of the forbearance period.
The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly not "ordinary circumstances," however, so many lenders are approving forbearance for victims of COVID-19 hardship. Furthermore, these institutions are working with borrowers to aid them at the end of the forbearance period to work out repayment terms or loan adjustments as necessary to prevent further hardship.
Specific forbearance programs vary by lender, and you must connect with each of yours to request forbearance. Follow instructions on your lender's website or use the phone number that appears on your billing statement. Customer service operations at many lenders are swamped, so you may need to be persistent and patient.
As reflected in your credit report, any of your accounts placed in forbearance under the CARES Act will be "paused" in the payment status they are at when forbearance begins. If the account is current and in good standing, it will stay that way even if payments are reduced or suspended during forbearance. If an account is, say, 30 days past due when forbearance starts, it will remain at that status (and not rack up further delinquency) during the forbearance period.
All the national credit reporting companies have put in place a system that enables lenders to add a statement along with a special code that indicates the consumer has been affected by a natural or declared disaster.
To get your missed or reduced payments assigned the natural-disaster flag, you must inform your lenders that they are pandemic-related.
What Are My Options if I Can't Make a Payment During the Crisis?
Here are steps you can take in different debt categories if you know you will miss at least one payment on your account.
Under guidance from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and several federally backed agencies, most credit card issuers are making exceptions for cardholders financially impacted by COVID-19.
To help you find payment relief programs that apply to you, check your lender's website or call the cardholder services number printed on the back of your card.
If you are having difficulty covering your rent or are facing eviction in connection with COVID-19, reach out to your landlord as soon as possible to discuss extending your payments or making other arrangements to help cover your rent. If your rental property isn't covered by the CARES Act, you may be protected by measures enacted in your state. Many states have suspended evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic. You can find details that apply to your specific state of residence on the websites of your state's attorney general, state courts or legal aid programs.
If you're facing the possibility of missing mortgage payments in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, your lender may have a plan for helping you.
Federal legislation signed in late March, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, offers a wide range of relief options for borrowers with federally backed mortgages, including mortgage forbearance for up to 12 months, followed by mortgage modifications if needed.
If you're a homeowner, contact your mortgage servicer (the company that collects your mortgage payments) for information on assistance under the CARES Act.
The CARES Act exempts borrowers with certain federally backed student loans from payments for six months. The excused payments must be repaid later, but no interest or penalties will apply for the suspended-payment period.
How Late Payments Impact Your Credit Score
If you've entered into payment forbearance or deferment agreements with your lenders, payments that are reduced or suspended during forbearance will not be considered delinquent, and will not affect your account's standing on your credit reports.
If you make partial payments or miss them altogether without formalizing an arrangement with your lender—even if your missed payments are COVID-19-related— you can expect them to be reported to the credit bureaus and to appear on your credit reports as delinquent. (Late payments made without your lender's consent can hurt your credit score significantly.)
It's always best to keep up with your debt payments if you can, making timely payments on mortgages and auto loans, and covering at least the minimum payment due on credit card bills as you are working through a financial hardship. However, as noted above, if you qualify for COVID-19-related relief measures, you can lower your payments without incurring delinquencies and protect your credit score.
What to Do if a Late Payment Is Reported If a late payment is reported in error, or if a delinquency your lender agreed to assign natural-disaster status isn't noted accordingly, you should submit disputes to all three national credit bureaus to correct the entries and protect your credit scores. If you have backing documentation from the lender, you can provide it when you submit your dispute. But keep in mind you NEVER want to dispute online. Yes, it's easier than sending a certified letter but you lose your right to sue the bureaus if they ignore you. Whether you would ever sue or not isn't the important thing. What's important is that they know if you sent your dispute in writing you CAN sue. Send every dispute letter in writing, certified mail with a return receipt requested. If the bureau doesn't respond within 30 days after they sign for your dispute letter they must remove the disputed item or you can sue. If you've followed me for any length of time on Twitter, you've seen I've won suits against all three bureaus and 17 collection agencies. To help you monitor your credit status during the pandemic, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are providing free weekly access to your credit reports at www.AnnualCreditReport.com.