A high-ranking lawmaker is pushing for Congress to redraw the road map for how credit scores are calculated, with an eye toward giving a little more breathing room to people who have fallen on tough times financially.
California representative Maxine Waters, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, is introducing legislation that would modify the Fair Credit Reporting Act in several ways.
It would sharply reduce the amount of time negative information stays on your report. Right now, if you default on a loan, have a debt go into collections or similar, you’re stuck with that black mark for seven years. Waters’ proposed law would shave three years off that and wipe the slate clean after four years. The proposal also would "reverse" defaults on private student loans if the borrower makes nine on-time payments in a row.
"It probably is time to look at the seven-year reporting period and find out what the data really says," says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com. "The Fair Credit Reporting Act was passed in 1970 before credit scoring was as pervasive as it is today," she points out. A penalty that might have seemed reasonable back then might be too punitive today now that credit scores play into everything from how much interest you pay on a credit card to whether or not you land a job. (Waters also wants to stop employers from using credit checks when screening applicants.)
Waters' bill also would erase debts that are settled for less than the original balance due, including medical debts. Fair Isaac, the company behind the widely-used FICO score, also made some recent tweaks to its scoring formula, including a similar change that won't penalize people for late payments if the debts have been paid off. The company also said it will give less weight to medical debt, following research conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which found that medical debt doesn't automatically indicate lower creditworthiness.
Some credit experts are skeptical of the impact and warn of unintended consequences and higher costs to borrowers. "This will result in higher rates for everyone," predicts Amber Stubbs, managing editor at CardRatings.com. "If [banks] are less able to accurately predict risk, they will proactively increase the cost of loans across the board."
Consumer advocates, though, are happy about the plan. “A lot of reform [is] needed,” Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, tells the Washington Post.
"She’s obviously thought through the thorny issues," says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action. "I commend Maxine for this proposal," she says, although she acknowledges not all the proposed changes would be likely to make it into the final law. "It seems unlikely such a bill would pass in this House," she says.