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AARP Answers: Your Credit Cards and the Coronavirus

The latest on payment deferrals, protecting your credit score and more

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I'm concerned about missing my next credit card payment due to the outbreak. Are credit card companies doing anything to help?

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Most of the major credit card issuers, including American Express, Bank of America, Chase, Citi, Discover and Wells Fargo, have announced measures to help customers experiencing financial stress because of the coronavirus, usually building on existing hardship programs for clients. Depending on the company, these might include:

  • deferring monthly payments
  • offering lower monthly minimum payments
  • waiving interest and late fees
  • increasing credit liimits

To see if you qualify for help or to find out more, call the customer service number on the back of your credit card or log in to your online account. Card providers are warning customers to expect longer wait times for phone support during the coronavirus outbreak and are encouraging them to use online tools to manage accounts and apply for assistance.

Does that mean I don't have to pay my bill this month?

Not necessarily. Most card companies are handling requests for financial relief on a case-by-case basis. You'll need to contact your provider to explain how the coronavirus has affected your financial situation and to discuss relief options.

One card is offering what appears to be no-questions-asked relief. Under a program launched in March and running through the end of 2020, Apple Card and its issuer, Goldman Sachs, are allowing customers to defer monthly bill payments up to six times, without incurring interest charges. You must enroll in the card's Customer Assistance Program for each month you want to defer payment.

Remember that deferral of payments doesn't mean forgiveness. You'll still have to pay those bills, just later on, and you might accrue interest unless it is waived as part of your assistance plan.

How can I find out what my credit card company is offering?

The major card issuers have pages on their websites with information on their COVID-19 response and links to online tools for managing accounts and requesting assistance. The level of detail varies, with some companies specifying the kind of help available and others simply encouraging customers to contact them. Click on a provider to see what the company is doing or how you can best get help:

If your card provider is not on this list, check its website or call the customer service number on your card to learn about hardship assistance.

Will this affect my credit score?

If your card company agrees to defer payments because of the pandemic, those payments should not be reported to the credit bureaus as late and will not affect your credit score. But if your balance grows during the deferral period, that can affect your score. Be sure to raise the reporting issue when you talk with your card provider. Even without a formal plan, the company may agree to put a note into your file stating that late payments are due to the coronavirus.. 

You can also take steps yourself to protect your credit health, such as filing a brief note called a consumer statement with the credit bureaus. Here's an example: “The negative accounts on my credit report are related to the coronavirus. I intend to make these up as soon as I can.” The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued advice on protecting your credit during the coronavirus outbreak, as have the three major credit bureaus, Equifax. Experian and TransUnion.

The credit bureaus are also making it easier to stay on top of your credit status. Through April 2021, you can check your credit report once a week for free at the authorized website AnnualCreditReport.com. Typically, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion each offer one free credit report a year.

What if the card company says I don't qualify for a hardship program?

There are other ways to try to lower your credit card bills during a difficult time, but they come with caveats. Consider them carefully in light of your current and expected future financial situation.

Ask for a lower interest rate. The worst your card company can do is say no. If they say yes, your monthly finance charges will drop. But watch out for third-party companies that promise to negotiate a lower rate for you. They may be running a scam, charging hefty fees to do things you can do yourself for free.

Look into balance transfers. You may be able to shift what you owe on one card to another that offers a lower rate. But many cards charge transfer fees, typically 3 percent to 5 percent of the amount being moved, which could offset your interest savings.

Explore cards with 0 percent interest rate promotions. Many companies offer cards with 0 percent introductory rates — you pay no interest on purchases or transfers for a set period, generally the first 12 to 21 months. (You're still required to make minimum monthly payments.) 

But any purchases you don’t pay off during that period will start accruing interest when it ends, often at quite high rates. You might even be charged retroactive interest, if you get what’s called a “deferred interest” card. Make sure you’re clear on what happens after the introductory term, and consider whether you’ll be able to pay the full balance before it ends.

You can compare balance-transfer and no-interest card offers at sites like Bankrate and Nerdwallet. Keep in mind that opening new credit-card accounts can affect your credit score.

Are card companies tightening lending as recession fears rise?

For some customers, yes. Reducing credit limits is one way for lenders to minimize risk during periods of economic uncertainty, when customers may have a harder time paying off card balances. Nearly 1 in 4 cardholders surveyed in late April by CompareCards.com said a card company had lowered their credit limit or terminated an account in the previous 30 days. 

Card companies are more likely to tighten credit if you increase spending on a card or request hardship assistance. In most cases, they are not required to tell you in advance that they’re cutting your credit limit. (One exception is if the move would put you over the limit, in which case you must get 45 days’ notice.) A reduced limit can affect your credit score, which takes into account how close your balance on a card is to the spending ceiling. 

If a card company reduces your credit limit, you can ask it to reconsider. Even if they haven't made any changes, you can ask for a higher limt; several issuers have said they will consider raising limits for customers who are relying more heavily on their cards during the crisis.

I got a call from a credit card company offering help with my bills. What should I do?

Be skeptical, especially if the call was unsolicited and asked you to provide personal information like your credit card or Social Security number. That's a sure sign of a scam. The same goes for a text or email purporting to be from a card provider.

Genuine communications from your credit card issuer will not request sensitive information. Messages that do are almost certainly phishing scams seeking to harvest personal data for identity theft. Don't respond, and don't click on links or open attachments, which could deliver malware to your device.

If you suspect that a communication from your credit card provider is fraudulent, report it to the company using a confirmed phone number or online contact method, and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Editor's note: This article, originally published in March 2020, has been updated with new information.

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