Checking your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus is always a good idea. A misdirected bill that has gone to collections or someone with the same name but bad credit habits could torpedo your credit score. Disputing an error can be a hassle, so if the error is minor and your credit score is stellar (760 or above), you may want to skip the process.
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Start by ordering your TransUnion, Equifax and Experian reports from AnnualCreditReport.com (opens in new tab). You can get a free report from each credit bureau once a year (you can also request a credit score for $8). If you find an account that doesn’t belong to you or even a misspelling of your name, you can file a dispute with the credit bureau.
The fastest way to start a dispute is online at the bureau’s Web site. You’ll need the report number, and you typically have 30 days from the time you ordered it to begin a dispute. The bureau sends your dispute to the reporting party (the lender or collections agency) to check the accuracy, and the bureau has 30 to 45 days to get back to you. If you’re lucky, the lender will own up to the error and either modify or remove it. If not, you could take your dispute directly to the lender, who also has 30 days to investigate and must show on your credit file that the item is in dispute. If it admits that the item is incorrect, it’s required to report that fact to all the bureaus to which it furnishes data.
But the lender may say the information is correct, even if you know it’s not. You can request a permanent narrative on your report noting that you dispute the item. When you apply for a mortgage or other major loan, submit a letter explaining the dispute.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine (opens in new tab). It might be the best investment you ever make.