Savvy Consumer: Ask Elisabeth

Question: I keep getting these "pre-approved" offers by mail from credit card companies. They have run my credit report, or so they say. When these companies do these small credit checks, does it affect my credit score? If so what can be done about them just randomly going in and doing a credit check? -- S.C. Liberty, Mo.

Answer: This is a common misunderstanding. Don't worry. When companies run your report at random to see if they'd like to offer you credit, it does NOT hurt your credit score. Nor does it hurt to order your own credit report as often as you like. What DOES hurt your score is if you APPLY for lots of credit and therefore many companies check your report at your request. Bankers get suspicious if you apply for gobs of credit all at once and that lowers your score. Even though unsolicited credit checks do not harm you, if you do not want to receive endless credit card offers in the mail, tell the credit bureaus you want to opt out. You can do this by calling (888)567-8688. You can opt out for a few years or forever!

Question: Almost seven years ago I joined a gym. About two weeks later, I canceled the membership after one visit. It was never billed to my credit card again, yet about three years later I started getting letters from collection agencies. I get calls in addition to regular letters from the agency offering me "deals" to pay $800 on a canceled account! Any suggestions to dispute this?

-- C.D. Torrance, Calif.

Answer: You join a gym to exercise your body, but if you want to quit, you may find it hard to exercise your rights! Some states now require gyms to offer people the option of a brief introductory membership -- typically 90 days. But, remember, if you signed a long term contract, you may have no recourse. When you're trying to get buns of steel, often those contracts are iron-clad.

So the first step is to figure out whether you had a right to cancel your contract. This will be governed by the "future services" laws in your county or state. Call your county or state consumer protection office for guidance. If you find that you DID have a right to cancel, then order your credit report from all three major credit reporting agencies. If the gym membership shows up on there as an open account, fill out the simple paperwork to dispute errors on your credit record. By law, the credit bureau then has 30 days to research your dispute and remove the debt.

If collectors continue to call, ask them for written proof of the debt. If you were within your rights when you canceled, they won't be able to provide it. And even if you didn't have a right to cancel, all you have to do to get a collector to stop calling you is ask for its company name and address, then write a certified letter asking it to stop calling. By law, it must obey.

Question: I had to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy back in March of 1999, due to a serious injury and had no means to pay all of my bills. How long does that stay on my credit report? I was just turned down for a credit card due to that. I am never late paying for anything and I am a homeowner with my husband. I recently checked my score and it was 692. What should I do?

-- L., New York

Answer: Unfortunately, if there are unflattering entries in your credit report, and they're true, time is the only remedy. Bankruptcy is one of the most serious "demerits" you can get -- even if you filed for good reason. A bankruptcy typically remains on your credit record for 10 years. What you can do is write a succinct letter to be placed in your credit file explaining the very real human circumstances that led you to file bankruptcy. Any bank that orders your report will have access to that letter and if often helps. Meanwhile, try having your husband apply for credit on his own, then make you a secondary card holder. Order your credit score from all three major credit bureaus. It will be somewhat different at each, because their records vary. If a business turns you down for credit, ask which report they pulled and ask them to check a more favorable one, if applicable. Finally, be comforted by the fact that credit scores change every single day. Every payment you make on time helps gradually raise your score.

Question Someone in Prague wants to share his wealth of $27.5 mil, (40/60; 40 percent give away). That comes to $11 million since he has no kith or kin. He says otherwise the money goes to the state. He is not asking for any bank account or anything. He is simply asking for my address and phone, to be contacted to send the draft. What do you think? Is this a trap or some money laundering scheme?

-- C.S. San Diego

Answer: Come on, C.S. Do you really have to ask? Perfect strangers just do NOT go around offering to share millions of dollars. I would like to edit one line of your letter. "He is not asking for any bank account or anything, yet." I suspect this scammer softens up his targets first and gains their trust, Then asks for their private financial information. If you provide it, he will drain your bank accounts. Period.

This is undoubtedly a variation on the Nigerian Letter Scam that I write about often here. It started in Nigeria and is now perpetrated by Africans living abroad, like in Prague, too. Americans lose hundreds of millions of dollars to this scheme every year. The U.S. Secret Service investigates outbreaks of the Nigerian Letter Scam. Go to to file a report.

Question: I've received a few e-mails from companies outside the United States, and was asked to represent them here in America and to simply collect the money from their customers in America and pass it on to them keeping a commission of 10 percent to 20 percent for my service. What is involved here?

-- C.S., San Diego

Answer: This is a newer scam that is gaining steam. Scammers often target people who have posted their resumes on job search sites. They write to you and congratulate you for "getting the job." Then they ask you to deposit checks into your own account, and forward the money on to them. Beware! The checks you deposit are fraudulent. Many banks will initially clear the fake, so you think it's safe to forward the funds. Later, the bank discovers the mistake and comes after you for the missing money. By law, bank customers are responsible for the checks they deposit in their accounts. Many victims report losing between $500 and $2,000 at a time to this scheme.