Have You Become a Credit Ghost?

By Steven Shaw on 9/18/2013

Credit Score

Have You Become a Credit Ghost?

At one point you had credit, and could get more when you need it. But then you checked out of the credit system for awhile. Perhaps it was a move overseas, a stint in prison, or a marriage to someone who kept credit accounts in their name only.

Whatever the reason, you now find your credit record has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. You feel like you’ve become invisible to lenders, a ghost in the world of credit, if you will.

How do you get back into the land of the living?

Your first step will be to find out whether your credit report is still live. To do that, you can request your free credit reports. You can also request a free credit score using a service such as Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card. If you are told that no credit report or score is available, then you’ll know you are going to have to build credit as if you were just starting out.

Most negative credit information remains on your credit file for seven years, while positive accounts are reported for 10 years. If you haven’t had any active credit accounts for that period of time, you may find your credit history has all but disappeared. “You have to start all over again,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian.

Your Credit History Doesn’t Travel

Even though some credit reporting agencies we’re familiar with in the U.S. also operate internationally, Americans who live or travel abroad for several years will find that their credit history doesn’t travel with them.

“Experian has business in 42 countries around the world,” says Griffin, but “your credit report and credit history does not cross national boundaries.” Different reporting systems and privacy laws specific to each country don’t permit an American’s credit history to follow them to other countries.

If you are heading overseas for an extended period of time, you may want to keep an account open in the U.S. “If you have an active account you will maintain an open active U.S. credit history,” says Griffin. You may be able to use a trusted relative’s address as your home base, but even that may not be necessary.

For the past three years, Warren and Betsy Talbot, founders of the blog MarriedWithLuggage.com have been traveling the world. During that time, they’ve maintained two credit cards. “The process has been extremely easy as we can pay all the bills online,” says Warren.

They have only run into one glitch: one of their cards “occasionally gets denied, despite having a perpetual travel notice on our account,” says Warren. “However, each time there is a block, we are able to call and clear it up immediately. Given that we have been traveling full-time for 36 months, I’m delighted to say we’ve only had this happen six to seven times and it never created a huge issue.”

Credit for the Incarcerated

In 2011, 688,384 people were released from state and federal prisons nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most will face financial challenges as they try to rebuild their lives, and many will find they need to re-establish credit, as well.

Being incarcerated does not necessarily remove you from the credit reporting system, however. If you have maintained open active accounts, they will remain on your credit reports.

But maintaining your credit while you are in prison can be difficult. If you have a joint account with a spouse or relative and they continue to use the card and pay the bills, then those credit references will continue to be reported on your credit reports and help you maintain credit.

Still, many prisoners and their families aren’t able to maintain credit because they become impoverished. After all, the inmates aren’t able to bring in their normal salary. According to a study titled “Collateral Costs” by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “more than two-thirds of male inmates were employed and more than half were the primary source of financial support for their children” before they were jailed.

And there’s another worry for those who are behind bars: identity theft. “Sometimes (former prisoners) find out after they are released that family members or friends used their credit fraudulently. So they need to check their credit reports to make sure everything is as it should be,” Griffin warns. He says that prisoners who want to review their credit reports while they are in jail will need to get a letter signed by prison administration verifying they are a resident of that facility.

Credit After Marriage

Although it’s not as widespread a problem as it used to be, some people (especially women) find that they have no credit of their own after they become widowed or divorced.

Griffin says this happened to his grandmother. When his grandfather passed, she had no credit. “Everything was in his name,” he says.

The simple solution to this is to make sure you maintain at least one credit card in your own name so there are no questions or problems if something happens. Even parents who stay at home full-time to care for children should be able to get credit. If you can’t qualify for a traditional credit card. you may want to consider getting a secured card to establish credit.

“All women — including happily married women — should maintain their financial independence,” says Emma Johnson, founder of the blog WealthySingleMommy.com. “Maintain your credit, and always have access to cash and credit in your own name.”

Image: iStock

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