Your Top 11 Credit Questions Answered

PHOTO: Credit cards and statements

At Credit.com, our readers ask us questions every day on every kind of credit problem you can imagine. While everyone has their own unique concerns, there are also many universal issues out there. So we rounded up 11 of the more common questions asked and we answer them right here for you.

1. How can the credit card companies raise my interest rate if I've paid my bills on time? What can I do about it?

It used to be that credit card issuers could raise your rate, even on existing balances, at any time and for any reason. Thanks to the Credit CARD Act, a federal law, they can no longer do this. They can, however, raise your rate on your outstanding balance if you are more than 60 days late with a payment and they can increase the interest rate on new purchases, but only if they give you 45 days advance notice so you can cancel your account.

As for what you can do, the best thing is to try to negotiate a lower rate. Call your card issuer and suggest you will take your business elsewhere if you can't get a better deal. This works best if you have other credit cards with available credit lines, since the issuer will no doubt review your credit report to decide whether or not to work with you. It's always worth a try, though. As author Marc Eisenson says, "Not asking is an automatic no!"

If you can't negotiate a better rate, try transferring your balance to another card -- either one you already have, or a new one.

[Related Article: Can You Really Get Your Credit Score for Free?]

2. A debt collector has contacted me about an old debt. Do I have to pay it?

Maybe; maybe not. Every state has a statute of limitations, which governs how long the creditor or collector has to sue you. If this debt is too old, and they try to sue you to collect, you can raise the statute of limitations as a defense. That means they don't have much leverage in terms of forcing you to pay. And that gives you more leverage to negotiate a settlement -- or just to tell them to leave you alone. For more information, and to fully understand your rights, check with your state attorney general's office or a local consumer attorney.

If the debt is too old, you can simply write to the collection agency, indicate that you believe the debt is outside the statute of limitations, and instruct it to stop contacting you. Send your letter via certified mail and keep a copy for your records.

If you are worried about your credit report, keep in mind that collection items may only be reported for up to 7 1/2 years from the date you fell behind with the original lender, regardless of whether they are paid or not.

3. What is the ideal number of credit cards to carry?

It depends on what you mean by "ideal." Most people will be just fine with two major credit cards. One should be a low-rate card for times when you must carry a balance, and the other should be a card with a grace period. No annual fee is ideal, unless you plan to use the card heavily to earn some type of reward. If that's the case, weigh the cost of the annual fee against the freebies you will earn.

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