With unemployment rates at a historic high and a contagious virus on the rampage, it may seem frivolous to think about credit monitoring or credit history at a time like this, but it’s an important component of your financial health that will follow you past the pandemic and into the future. There’s a lot of confusion now about what gets counted in your credit history — especially if you are experiencing financial hardship — so we asked John Ulzheimer, founder of CreditExpertWitness.com, and Rod Griffin, senior director of consumer education and advocacy at Experian, for their guidance on the most common credit questions.

How does the CARES Act change credit reporting?

Signed into the law on March 27, the CARES Act offers some credit protections to consumers who are facing financial hardship because of COVID-19. The new law temporarily amends part of the Fair Credit Reporting Act and allows some slack to be given to people who cannot pay their bills in the same way.

“The key word that people need to think about is the word ‘accommodation,’” Ulzheimer says. “If you have been affected by the pandemic, if you’re in financial distress or laid off or your hours have been cut or you’ve been furloughed, you can contact your lender and ask for an accommodation, which means asking for a deal with the service provider in hopes they’ll offer relief. This could be a forbearance, partial payment, deferral.”

If an accommodation has been worked out, then your creditor must report you as current on your payments, even if they’ve been waived or deferred. To get an accommodation, though, you have to ask for it; it won’t be automatic.

I can’t pay my credit card bills, utility bills, mortgage, or personal loan payments. What should I do?

The first thing you should do is talk to your credit provider. This will help you avoid any dings to your credit history. “Late payments are the first thing that will have negative results on your credit score,” Griffin says. “Your payment history is the most important factor on your credit score.”

Whether it’s your credit card company or your mortgage, most major lenders have put out statements on how they’re helping customers who have been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours cut. Some companies allow you to defer payments, while others will let you pay partially for the foreseeable future. The important thing is to contact your credit provider. Once you are able to explain your specific financial situation, you may be able to get a financial hardship plan tailored to your needs. Make sure to get this plan in writing, whether it’s notes taken on a phone call, emails or screenshots. Take down the name of the person you spoke to and when the call happened.

If you have federally guaranteed loans through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or another government-sponsored entity, then the organization is obliged to say yes to an accommodation. A privately held loan, such as a credit card payment or utility bill, does not fall under that requirement, so you will have to come to an arrangement with your creditor.

If I receive an accommodation from a creditor, what will show on my credit report?

If you come to an altered agreement with your credit provider on payments, your account status and payment history will be reported as current, even if, for example, your payments have been deferred. There won’t be an asterisk or explanation of hardship. If your loan is in forbearance, your credit report will reflect that, but it won’t put up a red flag to future creditors as forbearance was already a tactic used pre-pandemic. However, if you were already delinquent on payments, an accommodation won’t necessarily fix your credit history or wipe the slate clean. The payment status would still be reported as delinquent.

I was late on payments prior to COVID-19. How does this affect my credit now?

If you were delinquent on payments prior to the pandemic, then your payment status will be reported as such, even if you have been granted an accommodation from a lender. The only way to fix that status is to become current on payments.

What is the “disaster code” and what does that do for my credit?

This little-known tool of lenders and credit bureaus, known as the disaster code, has shot to fame with recent happenings. Usually reserved for people who have experienced financial issues due to hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and other natural disasters, this code, reflected as “AW” on a credit report, can be requested by customers to be put on their credit reports by lenders if they’ve been affected by a “natural or declared disaster.” In this case, a pandemic could be considered a declared disaster.

“It doesn’t mean much in practical terms for your FICO scores,” Ulzheimer says. “The AW code is cosmetic and does not provide any protection to your FICO credit scores. It doesn’t offer any credit scoring protection from FICO. It does, however act as a temporary credit score protection for your VantageScore scredit scores while the code is on the account, but once code is removed, it’s fair game.”

Essentially, the code could grant you some peace of mind if you want your creditors to know that you’ve been specifically affected by the pandemic, but it won’t raise or rehabilitate your credit score and won’t change the terms of your agreements with lenders. “The best way to protect your score is to ask for an accommodation, and that way you’re avoiding issues in the first place,” Ulzheimer says.

Can I ask for an accommodation, even if I am able to pay my bills like normal?

If your finances or job security have not been affected by the pandemic, then it’s best not to alter the terms of your loans. You should still make payments as usual.

“To the extent that you still have ability to make payment under normal cardholder agreement or promissory note, you should do so,” Ulzheimer says. “If you don’t need forbearance or a deferment, don’t ask for it. You don’t know what the lender will do afterward. For example, they may ask for a lump sum payment at the end of the accommodation. It’s not loan forgiveness.”

How can I check my credit reports?

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have the right to get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) every 12 months on annualcreditreport.com.

“Don’t be afraid to get your credit report. Now is an important time to know what’s there,” Griffin says. If you have made an accommodation with your lender, or just want to check on the state of your credit, checking now could help mitigate any headaches later on, if something is reported incorrectly. You have the right to dispute any inaccuracies and discrepancies on your credit report.