Bad credit, no job?

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm sure I'm not the only one with this problem. I just came from a job interview -- my first in 4 months, despite pounding the pavement every day -- where the interviewer asked me to sign a form permitting the company to contact any or all of the three major credit bureaus for my current and past credit scores.

I signed, but now I'm worried this will cost me the job. Both my wife and I have been out of work for most of the past year, living on savings and, yes, credit cards.

Now our cards are maxed out, or pretty close, and we have been late with a couple of payments, so our credit scores are in the dumps. We've considered signing on with a credit repair service, but I've heard that many of them are scams. Is there any other way to fix the situation? --Desperate in Decatur

Dear D.D.: You're right on two counts. First, plenty of people have had their credit wrecked by the recession, due to circumstances like yours. Since January of 2009, the national average credit score has slid from 676 to 669, according to Credit Karma, a San Francisco-based Web site that provides free credit scores and credit management tools to consumers. That may not seem like such a big drop, but any decline is an indicator of widespread trouble.

Second, you're smart to balk at calling a credit repair service. Consider this, from the Federal Trade Commission's Web site: "The truth is, these companies can't deliver an improved credit report for you... No one can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. So after you pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, you're left with the same credit report and someone else has your money."

That's not to say that legitimate credit counseling organizations don't exist. They do, but they offer no quick fixes, because legally, there are none. (For a checklist of what to watch out for when seeking help, click here.)

Talkback: Has a prospective employer asked you to agree to a credit check?

Unfortunately, just as average credit scores are slipping, more employers are using them to winnow out job applicants. Time was, only people seeking finance-related jobs or certain senior executive positions were asked to agree to a credit check. Now, almost half (47%) of employers request a credit check even for jobs that involve no direct access to, or responsibility for, money, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.That's up from 42% in 2006, and just 25% in 1998.

Over the past few months, lawmakers in 19 states and Washington, D.C., have tried to prohibit employers from checking applicants' credit, questioning whether the information is really relevant to most jobs (and arguing that often the people whose credit has been whacked by the economic downturn are those who most need to get hired. Sound familiar?)

So far, only Hawaii and Washington State have enacted such laws. Oregon passed anti-credit-check legislation in March, with an exception for cases where fiscal responsibility is directly related to job performance (for example, bank tellers or chief financial officers). A similar bill now awaits the signature of your state's governor, Pat Quinn.

So what can you do right now to solve your credit problem? It's important to realize that "much of what a so-called 'credit repair' service claims to be able to do for you, you really can do for yourself, for free," says Credit Karma CEO Ken Lin.

Let's start with those late payments you mention. They show "significant financial stress," says Lin. "They may be more of a red flag for financial positions than for other kinds of jobs, because they suggest you have trouble budgeting."

However, you say you have only "a couple" of them. Assuming your credit was solid before the downturn hit, call the bank that issued the card or cards: "If your history overall is good, but you had one or two 30-day delinquencies because of an event like a layoff, the bank may be willing to remove those late payments from your credit record, as a courtesy," Lin says. "Don't hesitate to ask. They can be reasonable."

Maxing out your cards, as you've been obliged to do, is a red flag, too. But the fact that prospective employers must get your consent in order to look at your credit record (it's required by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act) gives you a chance to explain.

Use it. "An interviewer's request that you sign the consent form is an opportunity to say, 'I've been out of work for a while and that's why my score is unusually low right now,' " says Lin. "Employers are well aware that a lot more people have been surviving on credit than before the recession. So if you are proactive and honest about the context, nine times out of ten the interviewer will not see a low score as an indication that you're irresponsible," but rather as a sad sign of the times. Good luck.

Talkback: Has a prospective employer asked you to agree to a credit check? Is it fair to rule out a candidate because of a low credit score? How can you get a hiring manager to overlook a bad credit report? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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