PITTSBURGH (CBS) — Everyone knows it’s rude to ask someone’s salary, but what some credit card companies are doing may be even worse – they’re guessing.

A deep discount when you open a store credit card or a zero percent financing deal for a new living room. Lenders make decisions on thousands of these offers every day.

Ever since the mortgage meltdown, Congress decided lenders need to be more careful about who they extend credit to, and that means credit card and finance companies have to do a better job of evaluating the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

The best indicator is a person’s income, but when you are waiting at a department store for that instant discount there’s no time to ask for a pay stub or a W2 form. So what do they do?

Personal finance expert Dana Levit says lenders have started using income estimators, generated by the credit bureaus.

“They use tools such as your mortgage, such as other debts, you have to try to make an estimate of how much income you might be earning,” said Levit.

Josh Konoff and Arielle Swartz are members of a personal finance discussion group. They were shocked to learn of the practice.

“It doesn’t seem very accurate,” said Konoff.

According to the credit bureaus themselves, Konoff is right.

Trans Union reported a 75 percent accuracy rate for incomes over $50,000. Experian reported 15 percent of the incomes it estimated at $35,000 were actually significantly higher. Equifax reported it was unsure how accurate its estimates were.

The victims here end up being responsible consumers.

According to Levit, if you spend less, the credit bureaus may believe you make less.

“So, if you have a smaller mortgage than what the statistics say you should have, you are going to look like you have a much lower income than you actually do,” Levit said.

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to keep a close eye on your credit report, any mistakes could have an impact on that estimate and make it more difficult to qualify.

There’s no guesswork when it comes to applying for a mortgage.

Lenders require full documentation and that means you’ll have to produce pay stubs, a W2 form and bank account information.

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