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Government shutdown could hurt federal workers' credit scores

Federal workers protest government shutdown

As the U.S. government's partial shutdown stretched into its 21st day Friday, federal workers who've been furloughed or forced to work without pay are scrambling to avoid getting dinged by lenders and credit-reporting agencies for skipping loan payments that could damage their credit scores. Missing just one payment on a credit card can knock up to 100 points off a consumer's credit score, and it can take several years to recover, according to experts. 

Some lenders, including banks and auto-leasing companies, say they are working to accommodate government employees who are not receiving paychecks, but their concessions vary, and some government workers tell CBS MoneyWatch they are struggling to negotiate deals with their creditors.  

"The general flavor of what we have heard is creditors are waiving late fees, offering the opportunity to skip a payment, or offering short-term interest-free loans to federal workers that come with a grace period on repayment," said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Unfortunately, the landscape of concessions is widely varied."

Just ask Jeffery Davis, 35, who has worked since 2009 as an air traffic controller in Malden, Massachusetts. The married father of three leases two cars, an Infiniti and BMW. He said BMW has allowed him to defer payment on his car lease for two months, but he reports his second lessor is less flexible.

Davis said he tried "to see if they're willing to delay payments or even take the lease back early -- they could write off how little I have to pay off -- but they said there's nothing they can do right now."  

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President Donald Trump, who insists funding be secured to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall before the government reopens, has said the closure could last months or even a year. With no end in sight, federal employees like Davis are anxious.

"With things the way they are, tensions as high as they are right now, it kind of worries me. Things that Trump has said, this could go on for a year," Davis said.

And while many lenders say they're committed to helping customers who have missed payments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday called on commercial banks to offer furloughed workers interest-free loans that allow them to pay their bills on time. She cited past shutdowns that concluded with workers receiving back pay after the government reopened. "Since there is a guarantee that they will be getting paid, I would hope that the commercial banks, the banks in our country, would follow the lead of some of the credit unions by giving interest-free loans right now to these families so that they can pay their bills on time," Pelosi said.

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The existing credit-reporting system puts the onus on lenders to approve repayment plans that help consumers avoid taking hits on their credit reports, according to Eric Ellman, senior vice president for public policy and legal affairs of the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA), which represents consumer reporting agencies.

The CDIA issued a notice to lenders reminding them of a code they can use when reporting consumers in forbearance to the three leading credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Under a forbearance agreement, a lender temporarily suspends owed loan payments. "It will hopefully give consumers a break who are affected by the shutdown," Ellman said. 

TransUnion said it is helping guide lenders to use the forbearance code "that will help give people a break on their credit during this difficult time."

FICO -- the best-known company assessing whether people are creditworthy -- depends on credit-reporting agencies' consumer borrowing and payment histories in calculating individuals' credit scores. But experts say it wouldn't be easy for FICO to overhaul its model for evaluating credit risks in response to the shutdown.

"It's kind of immaterial what FICO is doing -- their [scoring] model has long been built, and it's not systemically possible for them to just 'do something,' " said credit-scoring expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. 

A call for comment from FICO owner Fair Isaac Corp. was not returned. 

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Florence Weston, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and who has been furloughed since Dec. 22, said she is relying on savings to make her monthly car payment and handle other bills. Still, she worries that the ripple effects of the shutdown -- and possibly numerous weeks of no paychecks -- will deplete her funds. 

"I had to tap into my savings account to pay my mortgage, but I also have my car notes and my mortgage next month. Everything is only two to three weeks away and right now we are not being paid."

Other government workers say their lenders are working with them. Brandon Miller, a Federal Aviation Administration controller in Potomac, Maryland, said the United Services Automobile Association, where he banks, "has been completely open to what I have needed," including allowing him to delay payment on his credit card for a full month. 

And SkyOne Federal Credit Union, which represents air transportation employees, is offering $5,000 loans that are interest-free if they are repaid within 90 days. 

"We have had a lot of help that way," he said.

-- With reporting from Irina Ivanova

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained a complaint from a furloughed government worker about his lender Mariner Finance. Mariner Finance tells CBS MoneyWatch the company immediately moved to mitigate his loan terms once it learned of his situation. "We have long had policies in place to address hardship deferments and those policies do indeed apply to customers impacted by the federal government shutdown," Mariner Finance said in a statement. "We know that the government closure is creating difficulty for some of our customers, and we are actively working with our customers to meet their needs with dignity and respect."   

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