Protect your credit score during coronavirus crisis — 5 things you should do right now

An economic disaster can leave you feeling helpless, but there are some things you may be able to control. (iStock)

Disasters, regardless of their nature, can apply significant pressure to your financial situation, especially if you’ve lost your job or had your work hours reduced significantly.

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The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through the U.S. economy. In just three weeks, more than 10 percent of American workers applied for unemployment benefits, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

While you may not have complete control over your finances right now, it’s crucial that you take steps to mitigate or even prevent the current economic situation from wreaking havoc on your credit score.

“The actions to protect credit during a crisis are largely the same as any other time,” said Freddie Huynh, vice president of credit risk analytics with Freedom Financial Network. But you may find it easier to get a helping hand than when circumstances are normal. Here are some steps to take.

1. Call your creditor

If you can still manage to make your monthly debt payments, continue to do so as long as you can. But if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re struggling, don’t delay in calling your lender to ask for assistance.

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“Many, if not most, lenders are willing to work with people who can not make their payments due to a financial hardship or crisis,” says Huynh.

For example, many lenders may offer forbearance programs that allow you to delay one or more payments while you try to get back on your feet financially. If you get on a forbearance program, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides some benefits to protect your credit.

“For borrowers in good standing, impacted by COVID-19, who contact their lenders and receive help through a forbearance program or other payment hardship program, lenders will continue to report their status as current with credit reporting bureaus,” Huynh said.

2. Prioritize your payments

If you have multiple debt obligations, take a look at your monthly payments to see if you can make some changes to stay current.

It’s not ideal to make just the minimum payment on your credit cards—paying in full helps you avoid interest charges—but it’s better than missing a payment altogether and watching your credit score drop as a result.

3. Seek financial assistance

If you’ve lost your job because of the coronavirus pandemic, file an unemployment claim with your state’s labor department.

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In addition to the benefits you may be eligible for from your state, you may also get an additional $600 per week through the CARES Act. What’s more, the CARES Act extends unemployment eligibility by 13 weeks beyond your state’s maximum benefit period.

Unemployment benefits won’t completely replace your income, but it can help reduce the sting of losing your job and help you stay on top of some of your debt payments.

4. Put a freeze on your credit reports

The COVID-19 crisis has given rise to all sorts of scams, and criminals are looking for opportunities to take advantage of people who are struggling and may feel desperate. If someone gets hold of your Social Security number and other personally identifiable information, they can open credit accounts in your name, which can damage your credit score.

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To prevent this from happening, consider placing a freeze on your credit reports with each of the national credit bureaus. You can complete this process online in just a few steps, and it’ll ensure that nobody but you can view your credit report—and if creditors can’t view your credit report, they won’t run a credit check.

5. Check your credit score regularly

If you have a lot going on in your life, it can be easy to let some things fall through the cracks. By checking your credit score regularly, you’ll be able to spot potentially negative items quickly, so that you can address them before they take a heavier toll on your credit history.10 CREDIT CARD TERMS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW

You can check your FICO score for free through Experian or Discover Credit Scorecard. If you’re wondering, “How often is credit updated?” Timeframes can range from daily to quarterly, depending on the service you use.

Following these steps won’t solve all of your financial concerns, but it can significantly reduce the potential negative credit score changes from the coronavirus crisis.