Credit Protection & Prevention: The Best Offense is a Good Defense

When it comes to credit, prevention and protection are the best methods to maintaining good credit. What that means is making sure the bad stuff never gets on there in the first place. Focus on prevention. One method of protection is to make sure your credit score is so high that if something does slip through the cracks it won’t be completely detrimental.

I have always told my students and readers their goal should be to reach an 800 FICO score. Not because it will necessarily give them the best rate (typically anything over 740 – 760 will accomplish this), but because it will protect in the event of something bad appearing on the credit report. Obviously paying our creditors on-time is the main way to both prevent and protect our credit from the #1 bad thing, late payments. However, there are many other bad things which can happen. Forcing us to be on guard.

A common issue is a collection. Medical collections make up the bulk of collections. According to ACA International Top Collections Markets Survey medical collections account for 42% of all collections. Even though medical collections are being phased out of inclusion in the latest FICO score model, for mortgages it is going to be another year or more before we see the change. Typically they are small amounts. In many cases less than $250. No matter the amount, a collection will cause harm to the credit score. Therefore potentially costing us more money when we seek to borrow money or need credit for some purpose.

The nature of the collection for many people is that if they knew they owed it they would have just paid it. I am going to share a personal example that happened to me.

My son was born in mid-2004; at that time I was writing checks to any medical provider saying I owed them money. Insurance may cover some procedures, but there are still deductibles. Not to mention out of network medical providers who do not have a contractual with your health insurance provider. Out of the blue a call is received in November 2008 from a lady at a medical collection agency claiming $260 is owed to a pre-natal medical provider. Of course this sounded fishy to me. The first step in answering the claim of a collector, request a validation of debt. Provide me with documentation in regard to the debt. Show me I owe it.

There is always the possibility they are looking for a different person. For example, there is more than one Patrick Ritchie in the Phoenix area. I did a once per semester class at Scottsdale Community College, I received a check for an unusually higher amount than normal. Upon contacting Human Resources I discovered my check was mixed up with a different Patrick Ritchie. We all know mistakes happen.

Since mistaken identity is always a possibility, request a validation of debt. It is a legal right under U.S. Code TITLE 15 > CHAPTER 41 > SUBCHAPTER V > § 1692g Validation of Debts. Knowing this I made the request.

A few days later I was provided with information pertaining to the service for which they said I owe. It showed the debts are from December 2003 and January 2004 for two separate ultrasounds. I save everything, so I went to my filing cabinet to dig out what I had. To verify I had not missed anything I also called my healthcare insurance provider to see what records it showed. The insurance company showed the two claims as being paid. I called the pre-natal medical provider to have a conversation with them directly about the debt. They claimed they did not show receipt of payment. I had the insurance company fax me proof of payment. I drove to the medical provider’s office to show them my documentation. What I discovered was that they were out of network for my insurance company. The insurance company had sent the payment to me instead of the provider. The provider continuously billed the insurance company, never me, and eventually gave up in June 2005. I never received a bill from them for any amount. As it turns out I had their money. Actually a portion of the money since the entire billed amount was not paid by the insurance company. I did owe them the money.

To remedy it I wrote a check directly to the collection agency. Their bait was that the debt had until December 31st, 2008 to be paid before it would be reported on the credit report. As strange as the collection call was, it was not a scam. Although it certainly seemed unusual. Knowing how many checks I had written for any invoices received at the time, it seemed extremely odd that I would have ignored a bill from this particular medical provider. The reality is that I was never sent an invoice for services provided.

In late summer of 2004 after the birth of my son we moved to a new house. My mail was forwarded to the new address. The majority of my mail goes to a PO Box, so even the move didn’t seem like a 100% possibility of why I did not receive an invoice. After discussing the situation with the billing department of the medical provider they could not show that an invoice had ever been sent out to me. Coincidentally, the same medical provider was used in early 2005. According to their records, those ultrasounds were all paid for. Even though I was there writing checks a year after the first pregnancy, they never brought up the fact that I still owed them money.

Do you see why collections are so frustrating? Sometimes things just fall through the cracks. Both the collection agent and medical provider were helpful in assisting me to figure this all out. This situation was fortunate for me; they were able to reach me before it was submitted to my credit report. Had they been unsuccessful in reaching me, the collection would have just been placed on the credit report. Many times I have heard, “this is impossible, there cannot be a collection on my credit report, I pay everything I owe.” If we never receive a bill and a debt comes up years later it can become a problem.

What kind of problem could it have been? My credit scores typically ranged between 780 – 810. I would think a collection would have knocked me down at least 50 points. My best case scenario might have been a credit score in the 730 range. Still a good credit score. This is why we should always shoot for an 800. It reduces the fall if something unforeseen should occur. What about my worst case scenario?

My worst case scenario would have been if the collection had been reported, my credit card companies might have picked up on the derogatory account. Our credit card companies check our credit reports periodically to assess risk. Typically every quarter, but possibly monthly. The good news is that this has no impact on the credit score because it is considered a soft inquiry. Which means I did not initiate it, nor am I applying for credit. If I am deemed a higher risk my credit card limit could be dropped. Lowering my limits could have a major impact on my score. We always want to keep our credit card balances as low as possible. Always check to see what limit is being reported on your credit report, do not assume that what is on your credit card statement will always be what is reported to the credit bureaus. If my credit card limits were cut as a result of a collection being reported this could have a much worse impact on my credit score. Potentially knocking my score down in excess of 100 points. I will get more in-depth on this in a future posting.

The point of this is to show the importance of protection and prevention in regards to our credit. Doing so will ensure you are always on top of your credit when you need it.

About the Author: Patrick Ritchie loves teaching about credit; he is the author of The Credit Road Trip and The Credit Road Map series of books. Check out his free online classes at www.CreditLiteracyProject.com.

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