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You’ve found a credit report mistake and you want it fixed fast. How can you make it happen?

Experts — myself included — often recommend filing a written dispute and sending it by certified mail, especially in the case of serious mistakes. That way, you have proof your dispute was received and you can include documentation of your side of the story. In fact, 43% of all disputes are sent in written format, says Norm Magnuson, vice president of public affairs for the Consumer Data Industry Association. Considering that a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report found that credit reporting agencies processed approximately 32 million to 38 million dispute re-investigations in 2011, that’s a lot of mail flowing through the postal system to these agencies.

Mail is a perfectly legitimate way to launch an investigation into your credit, and so is the telephone if you are more comfortable doing that. But just keep in mind that by doing so, you may slow down the process for three reasons.

1. Mail takes time.

It can take several days for your letter to arrive at the credit reporting agency’s office. From there it must be processed, which takes additional time. It doesn’t come close to the instantaneous processing time of clicking a few buttons on your computer to tell the credit reporting agency that you’ve found a mistake.

2. Your problem may not be clear.

While trying to describe the problem, many consumers include as many details as possible in your letter. But the more you include, the longer it will take someone to try to figure out what’s really going on. As I’ll explain in a moment, someone at the other end needs to code that dispute into the system, and if it isn’t clear, it may wind up being coded incorrectly.

3. You may leave out key information.

Let’s say you mention you were never late on your credit card. Which credit card are you talking about? Or maybe you don’t include your Social Security number and your last name is Johnson (like 1.8 million other Americans). If the bureau employee cannot properly identify your problem or your credit file, it will have to write back to you for clarification. That’s another delay.

“The only difference between initiating a dispute online, by telephone or by mail is the time it takes for the dispute to be received and processed,” says Susan Henson, senior director, public relations for Experian. “When a person initiates a dispute online, it is immediately entered into the dispute system. If a person calls – after they have their personal report from Experian – the dispute will be entered in the same way by a representative or through an automated response system. When a dispute is submitted by mail, time must be allowed for the letter to arrive and then be processed into the dispute system.”

What Happens to Your Request?

Regardless of the way you notify the agency that you think something is wrong, it will be entered into a system called “e-Oscar” that is used by all the credit reporting agencies to facilitate investigations of credit report disputes. (Don’t get confused here, though; the credit reporting agencies don’t share information with each other. This system is used for lenders and furnishers — the companies that supply information to them, such as credit card companies or collectors — to communicate with each other.)

If you dispute an item online, you will see a menu of choices that categorize your dispute. If you write or call the bureau, an employee will categorize it for you. Either way, it gets boiled down to a number. In addition, there is also a “narrative field” where you (or the employee) can share additional information or clarification.

In some cases, the credit reporting agency either fixes or rejects the dispute itself without contacting a furnisher. This usually happens when a consumer disputes personal information, or in cases where it’s clear that a correction is in order.

However, in the majority of cases, the dispute is forwarded to the furnisher who then must investigate. In a recent development, the e-Oscar system was enhanced to allow documentation provided by the consumer to be appended to a complaint. So if you included a copy of a billing statement showing you weren’t late, for example, that document will go with your complaint to the credit reporting agency. The expectation is that it will allow the companies that provide information to the credit reporting agencies to conduct a more thorough investigation.

Tips for Faster Disputes

  1. Get your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies first. You can do this directly from the credit reporting agencies or by ordering your free credit reports once a year. The reports you receive will provide instructions for filing a dispute over information you found on that specific report. Credit bureaus don’t share information with each other, so it is difficult for say, Experian, to respond to a dispute involving information you found on your Equifax report because the data or format may be different.
  2. Dispute online, unless you need to provide additional documentation, in which case you will need to mail that in. With TransUnion, if a consumer initiated the dispute offline, they can also register online to obtain the results of their investigation there rather than wait for a response by snail mail. If you do use an online dispute system, be sure to get a confirmation that your complaint was received and keep that information for your records.
  3. If you dispute by mail, be crystal clear about the nature of the error. “When requesting a dispute, be specific; for example, ‘The account is not mine,’ ‘The account was never late,’ or ‘The account is fraudulent.’” says Henson. If you provide back-up documentation, provide only what is necessary to process your dispute. Use a highlighter to highlight key points if you can. Remember, the more information someone has to dig through, the more difficult it will be to resolve your issue.

The good news is that, overall, “73% of disputes are resolved in 14 days,” says Magnuson. Once your credit file has been corrected, the next time your credit score is calculated it will take into account the new data. So not only can you fix a credit report error in less than a month, you may see your credit score improve that quickly, as well.

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