Millions of Americans will see their credit histories seriously tarnished or ruined by the economic fallout resulting from the coronavirus crisis.

People who lost their jobs or are getting paid less are doing what they can to survive. For many, that means paying bills late and running up credit card balances, two actions that will negatively impact their creditworthiness. Just one late payment (30 days or more) can cause your credit score to plunge 100 points overnight.

As lenders struggle with the explosion of hardship cases, it’s fair to assume that some of the data they report to the credit bureaus will be inaccurate.

The three major credit-reporting agencies are making it easy for you to track what’s happening to your credit history in real time. You can now access your credit files for Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion once a week through April 2021. Before, you could only do that for free every 12 months.

To get your free reports, go to AnnualCreditReport.com. You can access all three credit bureaus through this portal. It’s a good idea to check all three because some of your lenders may not report to all of them.

Keep in mind: Your credit file isn’t a credit score; it’s the information used to generate credit scores. That’s why it’s so important to make sure the data in your files is accurate.

“We’re glad the credit bureaus are doing this,” said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the non-profit National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in Boston. “It's something that's absolutely necessary right now because with more than 30 million people unemployed, the number of people who are not going to be able to pay their bills is huge.”

What to Do When You Get Your Credit Report

Credit reports have four major components, according to FICO, the company that created credit scores. You want to make sure the information in each of the four sections is accurate and up-to-date.

1. Personally identifying information.

Check your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and employment history.

2. Credit accounts.

Lenders report the type of accounts you have with them (credit card, auto loan, mortgage, etc.), the dates you opened the accounts, your credit limits or loan amounts, account balances, and payment history.

“Make sure every account that's listed on your credit report, even going back several years, is something that is familiar to you,” said Sara Rathner, a personal financial expert at NerdWallet. “If there's anything on there that looks unfamiliar, that looks like an account you did not open, that could be a sign of identity theft and you definitely want to look into that right away.”

And check your payment history to make sure it’s accurate. If you make all your payments on-time and your file shows that you've made late payments––and you know you haven’t––dispute that mistake with the credit bureaus and the financial institution that reported it.

“You can’t dispute bad information that’s accurate,” Rathner explained. “So, if you’ve made late payments in the past, that will show up on your report, and you can’t get it removed. Hopefully, you can change your habits in the future to mitigate the effects of your past behavior.”

Note: A creditor is not supposed to report a payment as being late until it is more than 30 days past due. So, if you make a car loan payment five days late, you may get hit with a late fee, but it should not show up as a late payment in your credit file.

3. Credit inquiries.

When you apply for a loan, you authorize the lender to ask for a copy of your credit report. Each time that’s done, a “hard inquiry” appears on your credit report.

You’ll see a list of every company that’s accessed your credit report within the last two years.  Do all of these make sense to you? If not, an identity thief may be applying for credit in your name.

TIP: You can stop fraudsters from opening new accounts in your name by freezing your credit reports at websites for Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion . It’s free and you can thaw the account at any time if you want to apply for credit. Freeze the credit files for everyone in your family, even children who are too young to have a credit file. It’s estimated that more than a million children have their identities stolen each year.

4. Public records.

Credit bureaus also collect public record information from state and county courts, including bankruptcies. Overdue debt that’s sent to collections also appears in this section.

Again, if you see something wrong, find out what’s going on. If you don’t owe any debt, but the report shows accounts that have gone to collection, that’s another warning sign that an identity thief may have used your name to get a credit card or small loan and is not paying the bills.

Advice for Those Who Received an ‘Accommodation’ from a Lender

Checkbook and other consumer advocates worry that the economic catastrophe caused by stay-at-home requirements will lead to damaged credit reports and plunging credit scores for tens of millions of Americans.

Lower credit scores could result in paying more for credit––or being denied credit altogether––as well as problems renting an apartment or getting a job. In some states, prospective employers are allowed to check your credit score when you apply for a job, with your written permission.

NCLC’s Wu advises anyone who receives a “payment accommodation” from a creditor––a payment reduction, payment deferral or forbearance by the lender––to check their credit report to make sure it properly reflects that agreement.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act addresses some of these issues relating to credit reporting. According to an NCLC briefing paper, the CARES Act provides that:

  • If the consumer was able to obtain the accommodation while they were still current (i.e., less than 30 days late), their accounts still will be reported as current.
  • If the consumer was already delinquent when they received the accommodation, they will continue to be reported with the same delinquency status.
  • If a delinquent consumer manages to catch up during the accommodation period, they can then be reported as current.

“We are expecting that some creditors and servicers are going to mess this up, so it’s important for anyone getting some sort of payment accommodation from a creditor to check their credit reports,” Wu told Checkbook.

If you find an error, dispute it in writing with both the credit bureau and the creditor.

Should Congress Do Even More?

Checkbook and other consumer groups think Congress should do even more to protect consumers. In late April, senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced The Disaster Protection For Workers’ Credit Act, which would institute a four-month moratorium on all negative credit reporting––lenders couldn’t report negative information and the credit bureaus could not add it to anyone’s files.

“The credit bureaus could help by not reporting negative information during this outbreak and the recovery, so consumers will have a chance to rebuild their financial lives,” said Ed Mierzwinski, a senior director for U.S. PIRG’s Federal Consumer Programs. “But knowing that the credit bureaus won’t do it voluntarily, Congress must act.”

Help Is Available

Making late credit card, auto loan, or mortgage payments––without taking part in a coronavirus relief program from your lenders––can torpedo your credit worthiness for years to come. If you are unable to pay your bills, talk to your lender. Most creditors have relief programs in place, but you must ask for the help.

It might also be a good idea to talk to a credit counselor. Visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website to find a certified non-profit credit counselor. Initial counseling sessions are free.

Beware that there are many debt-related scams out there; before hiring a debt-counseling service, carefully research it and heed the many warnings from the FTC.

More Info

Checkbook: How to Monitor and Protect Your Credit

National Foundation for Credit Counseling: Coronavirus Financial Toolkit

National Consumer Law Center: Surviving Debt; the online version is free during the coronavirus crisis.

myFico: What’s in Your Credit Report





Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.