Take Charge of Your Credit

New rules phased in over the next three years will make it easier to correct mistakes on your credit report. Until then, it helps to be persistent.

Your credit history can help you buy a home or car, get a low-rate credit card, reduce your insurance premiums or impress an employer. It can also hurt your chances for all of the above, depending on what’s inside the file. That’s why it’s important to check your reports from the major credit bureaus regularly, in case negative information has slipped in by mistake. Plus, credit scores are based on facts in your reports, and glitches that start there could lower your score.

Errors creep in more often than you might think. According to a 2012 study by the Federal Trade Commission, one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their credit reports from Equifax, Experian or TransUnion, and 5% had errors so significant that they could have had to pay more for loans and insurance. When the FTC followed up in 2014, nearly 70% of those who were challenging suspected errors at the time of the 2012 study maintained that some information was still inaccurate.

Lenders don’t necessarily report to all three credit bureaus, so a mistake might appear on one, two or all three of your reports, and you must dispute each one separately. But when you try to correct errors, you may hit a wall.

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Federal law requires credit bureaus (and the lenders that supply your data) to thoroughly investigate consumer complaints and make any corrections. Yet, as it stands now, “the real work of examining documents, calling the consumer, making a judgment call—none of that happens,” says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. Rather, the agencies usually hand off the dispute to the lender to review. The lender may do only a cursory check of its computer records before bouncing back a reply. “The automated system encourages the lender to hit a button that says the information is verified,” says Wu. The bureaus usually accept this response as the final word.

Over the next six months to three years, that should change. The three agencies reached an agreement with New York State to improve the way they handle disputes, among other things, and many of these changes will take effect nationwide. The agencies will have to train employees to make thorough investigations, using whatever documentation a consumer submits—even if the lender automatically shoots down a dispute. “Consumers are often frustrated with the dispute process, and hopefully this will interject some additional review,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com.

Don’t assume if you have a high credit score that there are no errors in your reports or that errors won’t creep in later. Each of the three major credit bureaus tracks more than 1.3 billion pieces of information on millions of consumers each month. Your details could be mixed up with those of someone who has a similar name or Social Security number, or your report could include outdated or misattributed public records, such as civil court judgments. Or the creditor could make a typo when it transmits information in the first place.

Scrutinize your reports

Start with the basics: Order a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major bureaus once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com (opens in new tab). Pore over each section of each one. Variations of your name, an unfamiliar address, accounts you never opened and delinquencies you don’t recognize are all signs that your information might be mixed up with someone else’s—or, worse, that an identity thief is at work. If a black mark is accurate, make sure it still falls within the window of time when it can appear on your report (typically seven years).

You’ll also see two separate lists of businesses that have peeked into your file. It’s safe to ignore “soft” inquiries, which are grouped under a disclaimer that they are merely for your review or don’t impact your credit score. “Hard” inquiries from names you don’t recognize are more worrisome because it means someone has pulled your credit to follow up on an application, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com (opens in new tab). A hard inquiry by an unfamiliar bank, for instance, could mean someone is trying to open an account in your name.

Dig deeper if a nugget looks suspicious even if you’re not sure whether it’s a mistake. For example, if your report shows a credit card balance that’s higher than you expected, consider whether any interest charges are added in. Or if a collection account you paid off appears on your report, double-check that it has been less than seven years since the account slipped into delinquency (if so, it can still be included in your credit history). “Many of the things that get consumers frustrated about the credit-reporting process aren’t necessarily mistakes,” says Detweiler. “You forget about a bill, and it winds up as a late payment on your report. Your ex doesn’t pay bills he promised to pay in the divorce, and your credit suffers as a result.”

Small typos involving your name, age and address won’t directly affect your ability to get credit, and you may decide that chasing down a fix is more trouble than it’s worth. But the more inconsistencies that crop up in your credit history over time—say, a slightly misspelled name—the more potential for you to be mixed up with someone who has a similar name.

Dispute the errors

You have a few options for disputing a mistake, and you have recourse if your first attempt doesn’t succeed.

Start by simultaneously filing disputes with the lender and the bureau or bureaus that are reporting the error. Convincing the source that it made a mistake is the surest way to get a blemish removed because the lender must send an update to each bureau that published the flawed information. But filing a dispute with the bureau compels it to investigate. That’s a must if the dispute process drags on and you want to pursue legal action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Before you contact the credit bureau, have the most recent version of your credit report on hand. Bureaus give you the option of contesting errors online, by mail or by phone, and you can upload or send documents to support your claim. They have 30 to 45 days from the time they receive your dispute to investigate.

It’s a good idea to create a paper trail, so dispute the error by mail. Start by compiling your evidence, including a copy of the report in question (highlight the parts you’re challenging) and copies of documents that bolster your argument, such as billing statements or correspondence with your creditor. Then write a letter identifying which item (or items) you’re disputing and why. For example, if your report shows an erroneous collection account, pinpoint exactly what’s wrong—the balance is inaccurate, you already paid it or the account doesn’t belong to you at all. Clearly and succinctly explain the correction you’re looking for.

Leave out elaborate backstories, but be sure your case is airtight; bureaus can reject a complaint they deem superficial or unspecific. Similarly, bureaus may claim you didn’t supply enough identifying information, so consider including your Social Security number and date of birth along with your name and address. Finally, send your materials by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have evidence that your dispute has been filed.

When it comes to the creditor, get in touch via the contact information (usually a phone number and address) supplied in your credit report. Explain to the lender which item it reported is wrong, and be clear that you’re challenging something it sent to a credit reporting agency (and specify which one). With luck, you’ll get a helpful customer service rep who can easily trace the error for you. If not, brace yourself for a painstaking process.

When Candace Wilkins of San Luis Obispo, Calif., ran into trouble refinancing her mortgage in 2012 because of faulty information on her credit reports, it took her eight months to remove the blemish. The reports her mortgage lender pulled showed a long-forgotten account, paid off and closed more than seven years before, that was suddenly in dispute. Wilkins managed to remove the incorrect information on her TransUnion report by calling TransUnion several times a week for three weeks until she found a supervisor who agreed to delete the information. For the other reports, she had to penetrate layers of customer service at her lender until she could find someone to research her claim and correct the error with the bureaus.

In both cases, persistence paid off. When she spoke with customer service agents, she acknowledged that they had limited authority to investigate on her behalf but emphasized the gravity of her problem (a higher refinance rate that would cause strain) to implore them to seek help from their superiors. “I played every card I could to get someone to help me,” she says.

If, like Wilkins, you’re struggling to get answers, watch the calendar. Bureaus are required to forward your complaint to the creditor within five days of receiving it. If the creditor doesn’t respond within 30 (or in some cases 45) days, the bureau must delete the contested item. But don’t bank on that quick fix.

If at first you don’t succeed

If you’re successful on your first try, the hard part is over. You can ask the bureaus to notify anyone who received the report within six months (or two years for employment purposes) of the corrections. Regardless of whether you decide to do that, pull your reports a few months down the line to make sure the lender hasn’t resubmitted the flawed data. Another change that’s coming over the next six months to three years: The agency must send you a free report after it has made a correction (this is already required in some states).

What if your initial dispute fails? You can’t file a second dispute unless you have new information to back up your claim. But you can lodge a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (opens in new tab). It will forward your complaint and supporting evidence and demand a response.

If you’re still unsatisfied after involving the CFPB, pause before turning to a lawyer. Assess how much damage the error is causing. If your report is populated by legitimate delinquencies, getting one error removed is not going to pump up your score. But if you have one glitch in an otherwise sterling report that is preventing you from getting credit—say, a bankruptcy that never occurred or a collection for a debt you never incurred—fixing the problem could be worth the cost of a lawyer. You can find consumer lawyers specializing in these cases at the National Association of Consumer Advocates (opens in new tab) Web site. Be wary of paying a credit-repair agency to write in on your behalf because it can’t make your case more convincingly than you can.

If you can’t resolve the dispute to your satisfaction and have to live with the black mark, bear in mind that it will take seven years for most negative information and 10 years for bankruptcies to disappear from your file; criminal convictions and some other details may never be removed. You can ask the bureaus to include a short message expressing your disagreement on future reports, if you like. But it won’t carry much weight, says Ulzheimer. “In many cases, the consumer statement isn’t seen by anybody, and it’s not considered by scoring models.”

Beyond the big three

The three major credit bureaus aren’t the only ones taking stock of your financial and personal history. Hundreds of specialty agencies home in on specific aspects of your life, such as your employment background or check-writing record, and sell this information to creditors and other businesses. National specialty agencies must provide you with a free report every 12 months if you ask for it, and all must provide a report for a reasonable fee. You are also entitled to a free copy if you’re denied credit or charged higher rates because of a particular report.

It’s fruitless to try to keep on top of every niche file. But it wouldn’t hurt to pull your records from tenant-screening databases before you apply for a lease, or to check your CLUE reports before shopping for auto or home insurance. Be especially vigilant if a member of your family is going through financial problems (your names could get mixed up) or if you have been a victim of fraud. If you spot any outdated or inaccurate information, take it up with the agency.

You can find a list of common specialty agencies and their contact information at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201501_cfpb_list_consumer-reporting-agencies.pdf (opens in new tab).

Miriam Cross
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Miriam lived in Toronto, Canada, before joining Kiplinger's Personal Finance in November 2012. Prior to that, she freelanced as a fact-checker for several Canadian publications, including Reader's Digest Canada, Style at Home and Air Canada's enRoute. She received a BA from the University of Toronto with a major in English literature and completed a certificate in Magazine and Web Publishing at Ryerson University.