Creditors regularly provide a staggering amount of information about you and your financial history to credit reporting agencies, also known as credit bureaus. Unfortunately, due to human error or technical problems, credit report errors can occur, and it’s up to you to fix them.
Mistakes can include incomplete or incorrect information about your name, addresses, employers, credit accounts, balances or payment history. In addition to errors in your information, you could find that someone else’s financial history got mixed up with yours, such as if you have a similar name.
Credit report errors are not just an inconvenience. “A creditor’s error in applying a payment to your account could cause it to appear as past due,” said Barry Paperno, a FICO credit expert and writer at SpeakingOfCredit.com. “This delinquent status can then be reported to the credit bureaus and included in your credit reports.”
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“Once it becomes part of your credit report, this flawed information also becomes part of your credit score, where it can do some serious damage,” Paperno said. “A single delinquent account can lower your credit score by 100 points or more.”
It’s critical to maintain a high FICO score. Potential creditors and insurers might use your credit score to determine whether to issue you credit cards, mortgages, loans or insurance — and on what terms. In addition, it’s important to check your credit reports because errors could be a sign that you’re a victim of identity theft.
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How to Dispute Credit Report Errors
It’s not as difficult as you might think to dispute credit report errors. Follow the steps outlined here, and you’ll be on your way to clearing up those mistakes.
1. Download Your Free Credit Report
You’re entitled to a free copy of your Experian, Equifax and TransUnion credit reports once every 12 months. You should take advantage of this service to make sure everything on your reports is correct.
If you request your free credit reports online at AnnualCreditReport.com, the site authorized by federal law to give you copies from all three bureaus, you should be able to access it immediately. If you order your report by calling the toll-free number — 877-322-8228 — it will be processed and mailed to you within 15 days. If you order your report by mail, your request will be processed and mailed to you within 15 days of receipt.
2. Look For Credit Report Errors
It’s a tedious task, but you should inspect every item on each of your credit reports. You must make sure that all of the information in the reports pertains to you exclusively, not a spouse, family member or other person. In addition to your basic identity details, check for the following:
- Credit, mortgage, loan or other accounts that don’t belong to you
- Incorrect payment information, such as payments marked as late that you actually paid on time
- Employers you didn’t work for
- Incorrect information about collections, tax liens or judgments
- Negative information that shouldn’t be on the report, such as a bankruptcy that’s more than 10 years old
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3. Dispute Credit Report Errors
There’s a two-pronged approach to disputing credit report errors. First, write the credit reporting companies that aggregated the data when they generated your reports. Next, notify your creditors — such as credit card companies and lenders who provided the raw data to the credit reporting companies — that you are disputing the information’s accuracy. Make sure you take the following steps to dispute an error on your credit report:
- Send copies of supporting documents — not originals — to your creditors and credit reporting companies with your dispute letters.
- Keep copies of your letters.
- Do not send a dispute letter by regular mail: Spend a few extra dollars and send your letters via certified mail, return receipt requested. You’ll get an electronic or physical record that shows who signed for the delivery.
How to Write to the Credit Reporting Companies
To dispute errors with the three credit bureaus, you can write a letter, fill out a form online or call their customer service numbers. If you are sending a letter, you can find the address to mail your letter to on each bureau’s website.
Each credit bureau has its own requirements for disputing credit report errors, but generally you’ll need to provide:
- Your full name
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- Addresses for the past two years
- A copy of a government-issued identification card such as a driver’s license
- A copy of a recent utility bill or bank or insurance statement
You should provide all the details about the error, including the creditor’s name, the account number and why you believe the information is incorrect. Include copies of relevant documents, such as a statement with the accurate account balance reflecting your payment history.
How to Write to Your Creditors
In addition to contacting the credit reporting agencies, you need to contact the creditor or creditors involved in the errors in case they are the ones who reported incorrect data. Write each creditor with the full details of your dispute.
Include only the information pertinent to your account. Do not send your Social Security number or other personal information unless that information is necessary to identify your account. Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested to track its delivery. If you are correct about the error, then the company or creditor cannot report the incorrect information again, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
4. Be Patient
The credit reporting companies must, in most cases, investigate your dispute within 30 days. When you send your dispute letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, you’ll have proof of the recipient’s signature date, which starts the 30-day countdown.
The credit reporting companies must forward the information you provided to the relevant creditor. The creditor is required to investigate your dispute details and inform the credit reporting companies of whether the information was correct. If the information was incorrect, the creditor must notify the three credit reporting companies to update your information.
A credit reporting company must notify you in writing about the results of its investigation, including the contact details of the company that provided the information you are disputing. If the information you disputed was indeed incorrect, the credit reporting company must give you a free copy of your corrected report, according to the FTC, which would not count as your free annual report.
5. Follow Up
Stay on top of your disputes. “If you haven’t heard from the credit bureau within 30 to 45 days, either call or write the credit bureau — and always use certified mail, return receipt requested — requesting an update on the status of the dispute,” said Paperno. “If you disagree with the results, you have the right to add a statement in your own words about the dispute to your credit report,” he said.
You can ask the credit reporting company to send your explanatory statement to anyone who recently requested your report, although you might have to pay a fee. It might be worth paying the fee, though, if you were rejected for credit and think your statement might help change that decision.
If you disputed information with a creditor, it must include your statement whenever it reports your information to a credit reporting company. Continue to check your credit reports annually because new data is always being added, and you want to ensure it’s accurate.
If a creditor or other company is failing to respond or comply with requirements and processes for fixing credit report mistakes, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or enlist the help of an independent credit repair service or lawyer.
What to Do If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft
If you suspect fraudulent activity and need to report identity theft, contact one of the credit reporting companies and request that it place an initial fraud alert on your credit report. That credit reporting company is required to notify the other two credit bureaus to do the same. If someone tries to open new accounts in your name, he might be thwarted if he can’t provide your identifying information. This initial fraud alert can make it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts that could further damage your credit history.
To take preventive action, ask the credit bureaus to place a security freeze, or credit freeze, on your credit reports. After you receive your freeze request, each credit reporting company will send you a confirmation letter containing a PIN or password. Keep the PIN or password in a safe place — you’ll need it if you choose to lift the freeze. Setting a security freeze should also make it more difficult for an identity thief to open new accounts in your name.
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