FAQs About Credit Cards And Disasters

When a disaster strikes, credit cards can be a lifeline, providing for immediate needs and easing discomfort. These are the most common questions that come up for smartly dealing with credit cards when lives are in disarray.

I have lost my credit card. What can I do?

Contact the bank that issued the credit card. All credit card issuers have toll-free customer service telephone numbers. A local bank branch office may assist you or you can call directory assistance for the nearest bank. Ask a friend of relative with Internet access to search online for the toll-free number. Many of the major credit card issuers set up special emergency hotlines to assist customers in disaster areas. Do not call Visa or MasterCard; they are not credit card issuers.

What if I don't know my account number and don't have the last monthly statement? Can they still access my information?

Yes. They can still access your information with other information that you provide.

Do I have to continue paying my monthly bills even if I'm displaced or homeless? The emergency does not release you from your obligations to repay your debts. Consumer credit counselors urge credit card holders to call the banks that issued the cards immediately. If you don't have access to cell or telephone service, call as soon as you can. Inform them of your location and circumstances. Ask for temporary relief while you are recovering. The banks have different options that may include: eliminating the minimum monthly payment requirement, increasing your line of credit to allow you to purchase emergency supplies, suspending late fees and/or finance charges or rushing orders for replacement credit cards. If you fail to call the bank and you do not pay the required monthly amount on time, you may be subject to late fees. Negative information may be sent to the credit reporting agencies.

What if I no longer have access to my mail?

Call the bank that issued the credit card and explain your situation. They may be able to provide you with your account balance and amount due so that you can pay the minimum by phone or on the Web. Even if you don't have access to a phone, don't give up hope. Following a disaster, banking regulators will often tell the banks they oversee to have a heart and not tightly enforce payment deadlines. As the Federal Reserve put it after the Sept. 11 tragedy, "The Federal Reserve has had a longstanding policy of encouraging bankers to work flexibly with customers, whether companies or individuals, who have been affected by disasters. In particular, banking organizations are encouraged to take prudent steps to make credit available to sound borrowers, while taking into account current conditions in considering adjustments to the original terms and conditions of customers' loans or transactions." In other words, your bank may cut you some slack on your credit card bill.

My card is maxed out and I need to buy supplies and get temporary housing. What can I do? The bank may be able to temporarily increase your credit limit to allow you to make emergency transactions. If you know you are near your credit limit on the credit card, call the bank to avoid the embarrassment of having a purchase denied at the store or getting hit with an over-limit fee. Be sure to have more than one credit card and set one aside as an  emergency credit card . Ask for the maximum credit limit possible on that card since you don't know how much money you will need in a disaster. Review the terms of that emergency card periodically to make sure the credit limit hasn't been decreased.

Should I get a cash advance on my credit card to cover my emergency expenses?

Consumer credit advisers urge credit card owners to avoid using cash advances if possible. They generally have upfront fees and hefty interest rates that exceed the normal annual percentage rate for purchases made on the same card -- and interest is charged instantly, with no grace period

Can a relative call the bank or credit card company on my behalf to request an additional line of credit? To protect your privacy and security, banks will only release information to an authorized user or account holder.

Can I place a note in my credit report to explain late or delinquent payments during this period? The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows consumers to place a statement containing up to 100 words in their credit reports explaining the circumstances surrounding negative credit information.

Will the bank report negative information about me to the credit reporting bureaus?

If you call the bank to work out alternative payment arrangements and meet those provisions, you may avoid negative reports. Keeping in touch with the bank's customer service representative -- and not forcing them to send your case to a collections agent -- is a smart move.

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