The following article was written by our CFP® friend Neal Frankle. He is the chief editor of WealthPilgrim.com.
You aren’t and neither am I.
But neither are the credit bureaus who compile your credit history or the creditors who report to those bureaus.
If you have some splotches on your credit report the odds are that at least some of those black marks are there by mistake.
The good news is it’s not that difficult to repair a flawed credit report. While accurate, verifiable and complete data must stay on your credit report for up to 10 years, you can wipe clean a lot more negative data from your credit report than you might otherwise expect. And you can do this yourself. You don’t have to hire anyone to do this for you or make this into a part-time job.
With a little study, diligence and determination, anyone can clean up and repair their credit report. Let’s go through the steps together.
1. Who Are The Main Players and How Credit Information Is Used
Before trying to correct your credit report, take a minute to understand what you are up against.
There are four main participants in the credit world. You are the first and most important because you decide where and how to spend your money using credit. Most (but not all) of the information that’s in your credit report is there because of something you did or did not do. The good news is you have the power to determine what your credit future is going to look like. And as you’ll see, you also have the power to clean up a lot of your ancient credit past.
The credit bureaus are the keepers of your history. They collect data from creditors, vendors and stores. They record how punctual you’ve been paying your bills among other things. And they have kept records about your transactions ever since you started using credit. They also collect information from the local, state and federal government with regards to any liens, bankruptcies or criminal convictions against you.
There are many regional credit bureaus but there are three large national credit bureaus and they are the organizations you should focus on. They include Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. These are tremendously large firms. They collect data on hundreds of millions of people and each year they gather billions of data points. As you’ll see, they often make mistakes. If you don’t catch those errors, you’ll be the one who ends up paying for it.
Your creditors are the next participants to consider. They tell the credit bureaus about their financial experiences with you. The tricky part of this is that not all creditors report to all three bureaus and some don’t report at all.
Creditors are only human. They also report false negative information to the bureaus quite often. In fact, a recent study done by the Federal Trade Commission determined that one in five credit reports have material errors.
Again, it’s up to you to call attention to these mistakes and demand they be corrected.
The final player in your credit world are the people and organizations who use the information that the credit bureaus collect (and sell). Those organizations include potential creditors, would-be employers or business partners and insurance companies.
With so much on the line and so many opportunities for errors, it makes sense to do everything you can to make sure your credit report is as clean as possible.
2. Know Your Rights
We’re almost ready to start scrubbing your credit file. But before we do, you’ll find it helpful to understand the laws that protect you against what credit bureaus and creditors do with and to your credit file. There are only a few statutes to take a look at and you don’t have to be a legal genius in order to understand these laws.
The first and most important to consider is the Fair Credit Reporting Act aka FCRA. Among other things, this law requires credit bureaus to provide a free credit report to you each year if you request it.
This same law mandates that the credit bureaus and creditors must correct any entry that is not accurate, verifiable and complete (more on that in a bit).
The next law is the Fair Credit Billing Act. This guards you against unfair billing practices. So for example, if you are charged for something you didn’t buy, are charged the wrong amount or never got what you paid for, the merchant must make the correction both to your bill and to your credit report if they reported negative information about you.
The next statute to understand is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. This specifies what bill collectors are and are not allowed to do. In a nutshell, collection agents are not permitted to harass you. In fact, if you write and tell them to leave you alone, they must do so.
3. What You Can Contest
Obviously, any blatant inaccuracies (detailed below) need to be corrected. But it goes far beyond that. As I mentioned above, the information in your credit report must be verifiable and complete too. Let’s look a little closer to really understand what that means.
By law, creditors must be able to prove the negative information they report is true. If they can’t produce evidence, the information must be removed.
At first glance, this may seem like a small matter but it’s actually one of your strongest weapons in getting the bureaucrats to remove false negatives.
As a matter of fact, this burden of proof becomes more and more difficult to satisfy over time. That’s because as the years pass, companies go out of business, merge with others and/or lose information as they update their data systems. In other words, time is on your side. You might consider disputing a negative item if you think the vendor won’t be able to prove their claim.
You might have a negative item on your credit report that while technically true, doesn’t tell the entire story. If that is the case, the item must be wiped clean.
What is “incomplete”? The best way to explain is by way of example. Let’s say you delayed paying a bill because the vendor sent you the wrong product.
Did you pay on time? No. But simply listing this as a late payment isn’t fair or complete. You didn’t pay on time because you didn’t get what was promised. Because this data is incomplete, you can direct the credit bureaus to remove the negative item and they have to comply.
4. Go Through Your Reports
Now that you know how the game works and you are familiar with your rights, it’s time to order your credit reports and go through them with a fine-tooth comb.
I suggest you get all three reports at the same time because not all credit bureaus have the same information as I said above. If you only order one but a mistake only shows up on one of the others, you won’t know about it yet it will pull your score down.
Side Note: Some people like to order one credit report every 4 months as a means of monitoring their credit. I like the sentiment but I think there might be a better way to get this done. Why not use a free monitoring service to get monthly updates instead? This allows you to keep tabs on what’s happening with your credit real-time and it still provides you the opportunity to check for mistakes with all three credit bureaus at the same time.
As I said earlier, there is a 20% chance that your credit report contains material errors so look through your reports carefully. Here’s what to look for:
- Look at your personal data. Is it right? Is your name spelled correctly? Is your birth date listed accurately? The report lists your residences. Did you really live in those places?
- You are held responsible for all the credit accounts listed on your report. Do they really all belong to you? Do you see a mortgage or other loan listed that isn’t yours? Credit bureaus are notorious for misapplying credit accounts. Don’t pay the price for their carelessness.
- Go through the activity on each account. Do late payments or charge offs show up that never really happened?
- Review each account’s details and look for inconsistencies on credit limits and types of credit accounts.
- Are all the accounts they list still open? Sometimes the bureau falsely reports closed accounts as being open.
- Look for outdated information. If you have negative items on your credit report the law says they must be removed after 7 years. Does your report present data that should have come off your report long ago? Keep in mind that bankruptcies stay in your file for 10 years. If you have any unpaid judgments, they stick to your report for either 7 years or until the statute of limitations expires – whichever is greater.
- As mentioned above, look for any information that is either incomplete or unverifiable.
Of course there are other justifications for disputing credit report history but this gives you a sense of what to look for. Inspect all three of your reports and mark those items you want to dispute.
5. Assemble Your Evidence & Make Your Claims
Now it’s time to build your paper trail. Get any documentation you can that proves your argument. It might be difficult to corroborate all of your claims but just do the best you can and don’t be deterred by lack of evidence. Remember that the bureaus and creditors are responsible to prove their case against you – not the other way around.
Contest the misinformation with both the creditor and the credit bureaus. Much of the information you read about the dispute process suggests that you first contact the bureau and reach out to the creditor if that fails. I disagree with that advice. You are better off if you contact both parties at the same time. There is no downside to doing so and it saves you lots of time and frustration as you don’t have to put up with the credit bureau run around.
Send them a registered return letter with your request that they fix the items you dispute. Include your reasons for your demand and a copy of your evidence (including a snapshot of the credit report that contains the mistake). End the letter by telling them what you want them to do – remove the item from your credit file.
Some creditors allow you to dispute claims by telephone or through the internet but I suggest you stick with snail mail. That’s because if you contact the other party via internet or phone you might surrender some of your legal rights. Some of the rights you maintain by writing a letter include the right to see a copy of the other party’s evidence backing up their claim against you and the right to be treated fairly by collection agencies. If you don’t write, you could give up those protections and more.
And while we are on the subject of letter writing, please use your own words rather than using a template you download from the internet. The bureaus get lots of requests all day long. You have a higher chance of being taken seriously if you compose your own letter. You can use templates to get an idea of what your letter should look like but don’t copy them word-for-word.
As long as the credit bureaus think your case has merit, they will investigate your claim within 30 days. If they think your claim has no merit, they won’t even look into it. This is another reason why it’s so important to be thorough when you make your claim.
If the bureau takes you seriously, they’ll forward your grievance to the creditor. If the creditor admits they made a mistake, they have to tell the bureau and the bureau must repair the information on your credit report.
If the creditor simply tells the bureau that their negative data is accurate, the bureau will close the case on the creditor’s word alone. Then they inform you of the results of their investigation. This is why it’s so important to file your complaint with both the bureau and creditor at the same time. If you do, you can force the creditor to show proof. The credit bureau doesn’t push the creditor as far as you can.
Once you write a letter to the creditor and ask for proof of their claim against you, they have to provide it. The creditor will also copy the bureau on the results of their investigation. Then, if the bureau changes your history as a result of the inquiry, they must send you a copy of the results and a new copy of your fixed credit report.
In addition to sharing the good news with you, the bureaus have to send a letter to anyone who inspected your credit file over the last six months. The letter must explain that the change was made. And if you ask, the bureau has to send a similar letter to any potential employer who saw your report over the last 2 years.
Even if the negative item stays on your report you win. That’s because the bureau has to include a note on your report showing that you dispute the item. And that notation must be on the report when people review your credit history in the future. They also have to inform anyone who saw your credit information in the recent past and tell them that you dispute the item. You may have to pay to have them do this but it could be well worth it.
Credit bureaus and creditors process billions of transactions each month. They are bound to make mistakes. Unfortunately, when they do, you pay the price unless you force them to do the right thing.
Keep in mind that the law is in your favor. Demand that any information on your credit report be accurate, verifiable and complete. If the information doesn’t pass any of these tests, you have the legal right to demand that the negative information be removed.
Familiarize yourself with the rules that govern consumer credit information and follow the process. Be calm and patient but persistent. It’s well worth it.