Many UAE borrowers affected by wage reductions or redundancies amid Covid-19 received debt relief through the UAE Central Bank’s Dh256bn Targeted Economic Support Scheme.
However, as the payment holidays on loans and mortgages come to an end for some, those yet to secure a new role or who have failed to rein in their spending may struggle to manage their debt obligations.
The first step towards resolving any debt issues is to secure a copy of your credit report from the Al Etihad Credit Bureau and find out your credit score.
Set up in November 2014, the bureau brings transparency to the lending industry by assembling a credit record of the nation’s financially active residents through harvesting credit data including loan, mortgage, credit card and phone bill payments.
Marwan Lutfi, chief executive of AECB, says it is important to know what your credit score is regardless of whether you are struggling to stay solvent during a pandemic or at a time when your finances are flying high.
"Your credit score is technically a reflection of how likely you are to miss a payment in the future," Mr Lutfi told The National in an exclusive interview for the Pocketful of Dirhams podcast.
Mr Lutfi says AECB now holds the credit data of 8 million individuals and almost 600,000 companies, with a total of 2.92 million active borrowers and around 8 million active credit facilities. Here's everything you need to know about your credit data in the UAE:
What is a credit report?
Your credit report documents your entire credit history in the Emirates, such as any credit cards, loans or other credit facilities you have signed up for, along with your payment behaviour. Therefore, if you have defaulted on a payment this will be recorded, along with any cheques that have bounced in your name. The document also lists your identity information, such as your full name and Emirates ID.
How does AECB collect the information?
You can only have a credit report if you have taken on credit in your name through a credit card, loan or mortgage or a phone bill. The organisation collects data from banks, finance companies and telecom companies. However, in the future, utility bills, tenancy contracts, government bills and even court data and your salary could be added.
"At this stage, salaries are not factored in because we're at the last point of really completing a mega project that we're working on under the direction of the central bank … when we feel the data is complete, then absolutely this is something that we will factor in,” says Mr Lutfi.
AECB is also working with the UAE’s three main jurisdictional courts in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ras al Khaimah as well as the federal courts, to ensure any rulings against individuals that include a payment obligation are recorded in the future.
What is a credit score?
While AECB initially issued just credit reports, it later expanded its remit to roll out credit scores for individuals – a three-digit number between 300 and 900 that represents a borrower’s creditworthiness and how likely they are to make credit card or loan payments on time.
A low score indicates they are a higher risk for a lender while a higher score indicates a lower risk.
“If you have a score of 300, it means you've actually defaulted on a payment,” said Mr Lutfi. “This could mean you are 90 days past a due date for a payment, or you've had at least four bounced cheques in less than a year. There’s a correlation between the number of bounced cheques you have and the likelihood of you missing payments.”
How do you get the top score?
There is no winning formula, says Mr Lutfi, but three key components can boost your score: reducing the number of credit cards you hold, consistently reducing outstanding balances and making payments on or before the due date.
"Two of the biggest factors that decide your credit score are your payment record and credit utilisation," says Ambareen Musa, chief executive of UAE financial comparison website Souqalmal.com. "As a borrower you must avoid delaying or missing your loan instalments and credit card payments. Even if you cannot afford to pay off your full credit card bill in a certain month, make sure you pay off the minimum 5 per cent at least. To keep your credit utilisation low, refrain from using up more than 30 per cent of your available credit card limit."
Other measures, she says, include avoiding applying for too many different loans or credit cards in a short span of time.
Why is it important to track your score?
Financial institutions use your score to decide whether you are a good customer to lend to. Those with better scores may even receive more preferential rates on their credit facilities.
“It can also be the starting point for spotting and rectifying credit reporting errors and improving some of your own credit usage habits,” says Ms Musa.
Mr Lutfi says banks generally use credit scores for a quick pre-approval decision on a credit facility but will then download the full report to complete the process.
“A big misconception [among individuals] is 'AECB gave me a credit score of X and that's the reason why a bank rejected my application for a credit facility'. But that is not true,” he says.
Instead, while a bank will use a score or report to guide their lending decision, ultimately it depends on their own criteria at that given moment in time.
How is a credit score calculated?
The credit score is calculated using over 2,000 data points from various sources, such as banks, finance companies and telecom companies. The score also changes depending on your most recent financial behaviour. So while you may have been a model borrower for several years, miss a few payments and it will immediately dent your rating.
“It's really based on market data and we take into consideration things like the past due amount, the number of credit cards, the utilisation on credit limits, so for example, any negative status on these contracts, missed payments, how late these payments are,” says Mr Lutfi.
Who accesses your credit data?
Financial institutions access the data to decide if you are a good candidate to lend to.
“The use of credit report data in loan and credit card approval processes has really caught on in the last few years in the UAE. Apart from relying on salary and employment details, banks in the country are increasingly factoring in credit scores to assess a borrower's credit worthiness,” says Ms Musa.
“We're also hearing of borrowers being turned away by banks due to poor credit scores or a default-ridden repayment history. With the UAE credit scoring system maturing even further in the future, we could see banks introduce distinct prime and subprime financing options based on borrowers' credit scores.”
Some real estate companies also run credit checks on prospective tenants to eliminate the risk of bad cheques, defaults and rental disputes.
Last year FAB Properties, a real estate management company owned by the UAE's biggest lender First Abu Dhabi Bank, and property development and management company Dubai Real Estate Centre, said they now use AECB scores to assess new tenants.
How do I access my credit score and report?
Log on to AECB.gov.ae to download your credit report and score for Dh105. Residents that just want the score can buy it for Dh31.50. Simply register your details, provide your Emirates ID and passport number, complete the payment and you will receive the report by email within minutes.
Another option is to install the AECB app, available in Google Play and App Store, and download your report from there.
How often should I check my data?
Financial experts recommend checking your credit report at least once every quarter, says Ms Musa.
“Keeping a regular tab on your credit score can help identify outdated or incorrect credit details and also catch instances of identity theft. Credit reporting mistakes can severely impact your ability to qualify for financing, so it's best to have these rectified as soon as possible.”
For those who are very active – who regularly take on credit, make bulk payments and then close facilities, Mr Lutfi recommends checking quarterly, while for those with basic borrowing needs, such as one credit card, an annual check is enough.
Will my Covid-19 debt relief affect my credit score?
Mr Lutfi says the bureau has been monitoring this since the stimulus was announced. "The good thing is we have not seen any abnormal trends appearing from this activity and we are liaising with the UAE Banks Federation on this," he says.
Payment holidays are not considered as missed payments, he says. "It's actually the due dates that are changing, so there's been no issues on the report."
How do I correct a mistake?
The data stored by AECB is a reflection of what is in the banking system, “so if it is reported incorrectly, it's not a deliberate thing from a human being, it's actually systems", says Mr Lutfi.
To resolve an error, contact AECB's Contact Center on 800 287 328, which will raise it with the information provider. Alternatively, visit one of AECB's two customer experience centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.