Credit and Your Consumer Rights

Revision Date: 11/11
Maria Pippidis
FM-C-06

A good credit rating is very important. Businesses inspect your credit history when they evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, and even leases. Based on your credit payment history, businesses can choose to grant or deny you credit provided you receive fair and equal treatment. Sometimes, things happen that can cause credit problems: a temporary loss of income, an illness, even a computer error. Solving credit problems may take time and patience, but it doesn’t have to be an ordeal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces credit laws that protect your right to obtain, use, and maintain credit. These laws do not guarantee that everyone will receive credit. Instead, the credit laws protect your rights by requiring businesses to give all consumers a fair and equal opportunity to receive credit and to resolve disputes over credit errors. This brochure explains your rights under these laws and offers practical tips to help you solve credit problems.

Your Credit Report

Your credit payment history is recorded in a file or report. These files or reports are maintained and sold by "consumer reporting agencies" (CRAs). One type of CRA is commonly known as a credit bureau. You have a credit record on file at a credit bureau if you have ever applied for a credit or charge account, a personal loan, insurance, or a job. Your credit record contains information about your income, debts, and credit payment history. It also indicates whether you have been sued, arrested, or have filed for bankruptcy.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is designed to help ensure that CRAs furnish correct and complete information to businesses to use when evaluating your application.

Your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act: You have the right to receive a copy of your credit report. The copy of your report must contain all of the information in your file at the time of your request. You have the right to know the name of anyone who received your credit report in the last year for most purposes or in the last two years for employment purposes. Any company that denies your application must supply the name and address of the CRA they contacted, provided the denial was based on information given by the CRA. You have the right to a free copy of your credit report when your application is denied because of information supplied by the CRA. Your request must be made within 60 days of receiving your denial notice. If you contest the completeness or accuracy of information in your report, you should file a dispute with the CRA and with the company that furnished the information to the CRA. Both the CRA and the furnisher of information are legally obligated to reinvestigate your dispute.

You have a right to add a 100 word summary explanation to your credit report if your dispute is not resolved to your satisfaction.

Your Credit Application

When creditors evaluate a credit application, they cannot lawfully engage in discriminatory practices.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits credit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance. Creditors may ask for this information (except religion) in certain situations, but may not use it to discriminate when deciding whether to grant you credit.

The ECOA protects consumers who deal with companies that regularly extend credit, including banks, small loan and finance companies, retail and department stores, credit card companies, and credit unions. Everyone who participates in the decision to grant credit, including real estate brokers who arrange financing, must follow this law. This law also protects businesses applying for credit.

Your rights under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act:

You cannot be denied credit based on your race, sex, marital status, religion, age, national origin, or receipt of public assistance. You have the right to have reliable public assistance considered in the same manner as other income. If you are denied credit, you have a legal right to know why.

Your Credit Billing and Electronic Fund Transfer Statements

It is important to check credit billing and electronic fund transfer account statements regularly. These documents may contain mistakes that could damage your credit status or reflect improper charges or transfers. If you find an error or discrepancy, notify the company and contest the error immediately. The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) and Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) establish procedures for resolving mistakes on credit billing and electronic fund transfer account statements, including: charges or electronic fund transfers that you — or anyone you have authorized to use your account — have not made; charges or electronic fund transfers that are incorrectly identified or show the wrong amount or date; computation or similar errors; failure to reflect payments, credits, or electronic fund transfers properly; not mailing or delivering credit billing statements to your current address, as long as that address was received by the creditor in writing at least 20 days before the billing period ended; charges or electronic fund transfers for which you request an explanation or documentation, due to a possible error.

The FCBA generally applies only to "open end" credit accounts — credit cards, revolving charge accounts (such as department store accounts), and overdraft checking accounts. It does not apply to loans or credit sales that are paid according to a fixed schedule until the entire amount is paid back, such as an automobile loan. The EFTA applies to electronic fund transfers, such as those involving automatic teller machines (ATMs), point-of-sale debit transactions, and other electronic banking transactions.

Your Debts and Debt Collectors

You are responsible for your debts. If you fall behind in paying your creditors or an error is made on your account, you may be contacted by a "debt collector." A debt collector is any person, other than the creditor, who regularly collects debts owed to others. This includes lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis. You have the right to be treated fairly by debt collectors.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) applies to personal, family, and household debts. This includes money owed for the purchase of a car, for medical care, or for charge accounts. The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices while collecting these debts.

Your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:

Debt collectors may contact you only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Debt collectors may not contact you at work if they know your employer disapproves. Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you. Debt collectors may not lie when collecting debts, such as falsely implying that you have committed a crime. Debt collectors must identify themselves to you on the phone. Debt collectors must stop contacting you if you ask them to in writing.

Here are some additional tips for solving credit problems:

If you want to contest a credit report, bill or credit denial, contact the appropriate company in writing and send it "return receipt requested." When you contest a billing error, include your name, account number, the dollar amount in question, and the reason you believe the bill is wrong. If in doubt, request written verification of a debt. Keep all your original documents, especially receipts, sales slips, and billing statements. You will need them if you dispute a credit bill or report. Send copies only. It may take more than one letter to correct problems. Be skeptical of businesses that offer instant solutions to credit problems. Be persistent. Resolving credit problems can take time and effort. There is nothing that a credit repair company can do for you — for a fee — that you cannot do for yourself for little or no cost.

If you can't resolve your credit problems yourself or if you need help, you may want to contact a credit counseling service. Nonprofit organizations in every state counsel consumers in debt. Counselors try to arrange repayment plans that are acceptable to you and your creditors. They also can help you set up a realistic budget. These services usually are offered at little or no cost.

Your Rights under the Credit CARD Act of 2009

Limited interest rate hikes: Interest rate hikes on existing balances are allowed only under limited conditions, such as when a promotional rate ends, there is a variable rate or if the cardholder makes a late payment. Interest rates on new transactions can increase only after the first year. Significant changes in terms on accounts cannot occur without 45 days' advance notice of the change.

Limited universal default: "Universal default," the practice of raising interest rates on customers based on their payment records with other unrelated credit issuers (such as utility companies and other creditors), has ended for existing credit card balances. Card issuers are still allowed to use universal default on future credit card balances if they give at least 45 days' advance notice of the change.

The right to opt out: Consumers now have the right to opt out of -- or reject -- certain significant changes in terms on their accounts. Opting out means cardholders agree to close their accounts and pay off the balance under the old terms. They have at least five years to pay the balance.

Limited credit to young adults: Credit card issuers are banned from issuing credit cards to anyone under 21, unless they have adult co-signers on the accounts or can show proof they have enough income to repay the card debt. Credit card companies must stay at least 1,000 feet from college campuses if they are offering free pizza or other gifts to entice students to apply for credit cards.

More time to pay monthly bills: Under the credit card law, issuers have to give card account holders "a reasonable amount of time" to make payments on monthly bills. That means payments are due at least 21 days after they are mailed or delivered. Consumers have complained about due dates that change without notice or are moved up, giving them less time to pay their bills and increasing the likelihood of late fees.

Clearer due dates and times: Credit card issuers are no longer able to set early morning or other arbitrary deadlines for payments. Cut off times set before 5 p.m. on the payment due dates are illegal under the new credit card law. Payments due at those times or on weekends, holidays or when the card issuer is closed for business are not subject to late fees.

Highest interest balances paid first: When consumers have accounts that carry different interest rates for different types of purchases (i.e., cash advances, regular purchases, balance transfers or ATM withdrawals), payments in excess of the minimum amount due must go to balances with higher interest rates first. Common practice in the industry had been to apply all amounts over the minimum monthly payments to the lowest-interest balances first -- thus extending the time it takes to pay off higher-interest rate balances.

Limits on over-limit fees: Consumers must "opt in" to over-limit fees. Those who opt out would have their transactions rejected if they exceed their credit limits, thus avoiding over-limit fees. Fees cannot exceed the amount of overspending. For example, going $20 over the limit cannot have a fee of more than $20.

No more double-cycle billing: Finance charges on outstanding credit card balances must now be computed based on purchases made in the current cycle rather than going back to the previous billing cycle to calculate interest charges. So-called two-cycle or double-cycle billing hurts consumers who pay off their balances, because they are hit with finance charges from the previous cycle even though they have paid the bill in full.

Subprime credit cards for people with bad credit: People who get subprime credit cards and are charged account-opening fees that eat up their available balances get some relief under the new credit card law. These upfront fees cannot exceed 25 percent of the available credit limit in the first year of the card. Instead of charging high upfront fees, some issuers are considering high interest rates on these high credit risk accounts.

Minimum payments: Credit card issuers must disclose to cardholders the consequences of making only minimum payments each month, namely how long it would take to pay off the entire balance if users only made the minimum monthly payment. Issuers must also provide information on how much users must pay each month if they want to pay off their balances in 36 months, including the amount of interest.

Late fee restrictions: Late fees are capped at $25 for occasional late payments; however, the fees can be higher if cardholders are late more than once in a six-month period.

Gift cards: Gift cards cannot expire sooner than five years after they are issued. Dormancy fees can only be charged if the card is unused for 12 months or more. Issuers can charge only one fee per month, but there is no limit on the amount of the fee.

Law doesn't cover everything Consumers should take note: Although the reforms are the most dramatic changes in credit card laws in decades, they do not protect card users from everything. Issuers can still raise interest rates on future card purchases and there is no cap on how high interest rates can go. Business and corporate credit cards also are not covered by the protections in the CARD Act. If credit card accounts are based on variable APRs (as the majority now are), interest rates can increase as the prime rate goes up. Credit card companies can also continue to close accounts and slash credit limits abruptly, without giving cardholders advance warning. Many banks are already finding ways around the law and launching new fees not specifically banned by the credit card reform law.



Original Publication Date:

Cooperative Extension Education in Agriculture and Home Economics, University of Delaware, Delaware State University and the United States Department of Agriculture cooperating. Distributed in furtherance of Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. It is the policy of the Delaware Cooperative Extension System that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, disability, age, or national origin.

Disclaimer: Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by University of Delaware Cooperative Extension or bias against those not mentioned.

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