Consumers Beware: Applying for Credit Can Torpedo a Credit Score

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How Your Credit Score Is Impacted by Credit Inquiries

By: Tom Kerr

One of the most common and detrimental errors that consumers make in regard to their credit score may also be the most innocent mistake of all.

Without even realizing that they are doing anything wrong, millions of Americans each year inadvertently sink their credit scores by a significant amount just by applying for credit cards and loans.

While filling out credit card or loan applications may seem harmless enough, it involves having a bank, lender, or merchant “run your credit” or check your credit report to ensure that you are worthy of having credit extended to you. But just by doing so, those who check your credit may also be influencing your all-important credit score in an adverse way that could result in your being denied credit in the future.

Many unsuspecting people, for example, apply for department store charge cards each and every time a clerk offers those along with an attractive discount at the point of purchase.

Walk into any busy shopping mall during a major holiday weekend, for instance, and the chances are pretty high that someone will ask you to sign up for a retail credit card during a special store promotion. If you agree to fill out the application they’ll give you a free gift – like an umbrella, a toaster, or a tee-shirt. Or they may offer you a 10 or 20 percent discount on your first purchase.

Perhaps you’re traveling, and as you walk through the airport someone offers you a new frequent flier card. All you have to do is sign up for it and they’ll give you enough bonus reward points to take a free trip. Passengers even encounter this kind of offer while flying, because flight attendants will sometimes hand out frequent flier credit card applications while en route to a destination.

Sign up and get a free trip, a gift, or a discount, they explain. Plus the offers sound rather attractive and usually make good financial sense – at least on the surface. They run your application through a computer – which checks your credit history or score – and if you have good credit you are almost instantly approved and you walk away with a bonus gift or perk.

That probably makes you feel more confident about your ability to borrow, and it should. But it makes lenders more wary and skeptical. While that may seem ironic or downright unfair, it’s a fact of life – and one that you should be aware of if you are interested in preserving and protecting your credit score.

Here’s why that is – and how applying for credit cards or loans can be bad for your credit score:

  • Credit reporting agencies calculate credit scores based on a variety of factors that are meant to help predict how risky it might be to lend you money. These are translated into a mathematical ranking system.
  • The banks and other financial services institutions who are their clients rely on these scores to help them decide who is credit-worthy. If you have great credit you can get loans easily and at preferential discount rates. A low score, on the other hand, makes it harder – if not virtually impossible – to get a reasonably priced loan.
  • Applying for credit frequently – unless it is done within a relatively short timeframe – is one of the consumer behaviors that appears risky to banks and to credit reporting agencies.
  • They assume that if you are filling out lots of credit applications all year ‘round that it means that you are having trouble getting a loan, and the more applications you fill out the more desperate you appear to be.
  • So each time a company checks your credit report because you have applied for a loan or a credit card, that event is noticed and documented.
  • People in the credit industry refer to it as a “hard hit,” and a pattern of frequent hard hits over an extended period of time will add up to an injury in the form of a lowered credit score.

But that does not mean that you should never apply for a loan or a credit card. Credit is a really useful resource, and loans can really come in handy when you need to make a special purchase or otherwise manage your finances with some additional cash on hand. It just means that now that you understand how the system works you should keep that in mind and avoid the practice of unnecessarily filling out applications.

  • The first step is to gain as much knowledge and information as you can about how the credit industry operates.
  • Take advantage of free consumer education resources at sites like Quizzle.com, where you can track your credit history and credit score for free (without a negative impact on your score). They’ll also help you monitor your credit and have tools that offer you protection from identify theft and other nefarious attempts to use your credit unlawfully.
  • Instead of applying for credit cards or loans on a frequent basis, for instance, spend more time comparing those financial products to pick the one that’s most attractive for you. That way you can just apply for loans that you really want.
  • The same goes for credit cards or department store charge cards. Control the impulse to apply every time someone offers you a discount or perk, and instead only apply when you really need a loan or card.
  • Plus, only do it then after you’ve conducted an investigation to find out who has the best deal in town – or the most valuable rewards and bonus perks.

This strategy will protect your credit so that when you do decide to apply for a loan or a credit card you’ll have cleaner credit report and a higher credit score. Those qualifications ensure a smoother credit application process and a more successful outcome to get you the most affordable loans.

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