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Help! I Just Tanked My Credit

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It can happen to anyone, and when it does, it’s usually at the most inopportune time. You start to search for a new home or, finally have the funds together to buy a new car when — bam! — an unpaid medical bill you didn’t know about enters collection or a payment on a store credit card you forgot you opened goes 30 days past due.

These seemingly small faux pas can do serious damage to your credit. But you don’t necessarily need to panic if your score takes a hit. Instead, you might be able to mitigate the damage with these simple steps.

1. Verify the Information

Errors, unfortunately, have been known to keep credit scores down (you can find more about why there are errors on credit reports here), so if you’re unfamiliar with the item that’s affecting yours, you’ll want to verify its authenticity. You can typically do so by contacting the creditor listed on your credit report or asking a debt collector that’s calling you for written verification of the debt.

If it turns out the information doesn’t belong to you or you think it’s inaccurate, you can dispute the item with the major credit reporting agencies, or get someone like a credit repair company to do it for a fee. Removing that negative, inaccurate information can restore your good credit relatively quickly.

2. Ask for a Reprieve

If you are responsible for a misstep that’s damaging your credit, you may want to contact the creditor who is reporting it to the credit bureau(s). Credit card issuers, for instance, may agree not to report a first missed payment to three major credit reporting agencies — particularly if your track record up until that point has been stellar. Some debt collectors, too, may similarly waive reporting an account if you agree to a payment plan. You can find some tips for negotiating with creditors here and more about removing collection accounts from your credit report here.

3. Accentuate the Positive

If you can’t get a do-over, don’t be too hard on yourself. The effects of any negative information on your credit report will lessen over time and your score should start to rebound relatively quickly, especially if it was previously in good shape and all your other payment behaviors are positive. To steadily rebuild a damaged score, be sure to make all your payments on time, keep credit card balances low (below at least 30% and ideally 10% of their credit limit) and refrain from generating any new credit inquiries that could subsequently ding your score.

4. Institute Preventative Measures

You may be able to set up alerts with your credit card issuer that let you know if a bill is coming due or if your credit card balance is coming within a certain amount of its credit limit. You also may be able to set loan or other bill payments to auto-pay from a linked checking account before their due date every month. (Just be sure to continue to monitor statements for fraud or inaccurate charges.) Finally, be sure to keep an eye on your credit report so you spot any new issues early on and can readily address them. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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