The three major credit bureaus, and one forward-thinking debt collector, are making changes that could allow millions of people to get loans they’ve unfairly been denied.
Equifax, Experian and TransUnion plan to remove civil lawsuit judgments — where a creditor has sued and won in court — and many tax liens from people’s credit reports starting July 1. Striking those public records could improve the scores of as many as 14 million people, some by enough to qualify for mortgages and other loans that are currently beyond their grasp.
Meanwhile, leading debt collection company Encore Capital Group has shortened the time it reports paid collections from seven years to two. The company, which owns Midland Credit Management, Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance and Atlantic Credit & Finance, also promises not to report new collection accounts to the bureaus if debtors start making payments within 90 days after Encore notifies them of the debt.
The moves are long overdue, because the system for reporting serious black marks has been broken for years.
Why debt reporting is broken
Credit-scoring companies have long known that people who settle their old debts are a much better risk than those who don’t — but credit scores typically don’t reflect that fact.
The latest versions of FICO and VantageScore ignore paid collection accounts, and FICO’s newest score treats unpaid medical debts less harshly than other overdue bills. But most lenders still use older versions of credit scores that count collections against consumers, which can prevent people from getting loans and credit cards, or cause them to pay higher interest rates. The problem is particularly acute in mortgage lending, where mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require lenders to use FICO scores that are several generations out of date.
Stripping collections from reports ensures they can’t be factored into credit scores, which are based entirely on credit bureau data.
The bureaus have already agreed to kick other types of collections to the curb. As part of a massive settlement with 31 state attorneys general two years ago, the bureaus promised to stop reporting collections resulting from traffic tickets, library fines and other mishaps that didn’t stem from a credit account or consumer agreement to pay. The bureaus also vowed to remove paid medical bills, and medical debts now have a 180-day “waiting period” to allow insurance payments to be applied.
Public records such as judgments and tax liens are another source of problematic data, since many aren’t properly verified or updated, and correcting errors can be tough. Civil court judgments are particularly fraught, since many people don’t know they’re being sued. Creditors are typically granted default judgments, which means they win — even when they sue over debts that are technically too old or that aren’t even owed — because the debtor didn’t show up.
The number of lawsuits has soared as debt buyers snap up delinquent bills for pennies on the dollar and then turn to the courts for judgments. The costs of filing are so cheap that in some states creditors sue over bills as small as $60, according to a ProPublica investigation.
Small improvements for many
To be reported after July 1, a public record must have minimum identifying information, including name, address and Social Security number or date of birth, and the data must be updated every 90 days. Experian estimated that 96% of civil judgments and about half of all tax liens wouldn’t meet the new enhanced public record criteria.
Credit scoring firm FICO recently analyzed what would happen if the bureaus dropped all judgments and any tax lien that couldn’t be verified, using 30 million consumer records purged of that data that were provided by the bureaus. The credit scoring company found 6% to 7% of roughly 200 million consumers with FICO scores had such records, and that scores rose a median 10 points, says Ethan Dornhelm, vice president for scores and analytics.
Most people who have judgments and liens have other credit problems, which limits how much their scores can rise. That’s also the reason the change would have “no material effect” on FICO scores’ ability to predict risk, Dornhelm said. But the changes could be enough to allow people who just miss lenders’ credit score cutoffs to qualify for loans. To get a conventional mortgage, for example, borrowers typically need a minimum 620 credit score, while getting most FHA loans require a 580 score.
Clearing the garbage data from credit reports would affect more than credit scores, of course. Credit information is used by insurers to set premiums, landlords to grant apartments and employers to hire and promote. Making sure credit report data is accurate — and relevant — helps people save money and live better lives.