If you find an on your credit report what do you do? First, don’t freak out. Federal law permits you to dispute credit report errors with the credit bureau on whose report you find the error. You can dispute errors online via the bureau’s website or in writing by postal mail. If you chose to dispute the error online, you can even upload supporting documentation via the bureau’s dispute portal.
Once you formally dispute an item, the credit bureau has 30 to 45 days to investigate. If it determines the information is, in fact, an error—or they can’t verify it at all—the bureau has to remove the information. Of course, not all credit report disputes go smoothly.
The Credit.com editorial team offers some insight into how to get inaccurate information off of your credit file.
How Common Are Credit Report Errors?
Finding an error on your credit report isn’t uncommon. In fact, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s primary complaint from consumers in 2016 was about credit reporting.1
While some of those errors are relatively harmless, such as a misspelled name or an old address, others can hurt your credit and your credit score. That damage can potentially cost you tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime in higher interest rates, upfront deposits and increased insurance premiums. Learn how credit impacts your day-to-day life.
Fortunately, as a consumer, the law is on your side when an error does harm. Credit reporting bureaus have a responsibility to provide accurate information about you and are required to have a dispute process in place so you can get your credit reports corrected.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, if you dispute an item on your credit report and the credit reporting agency can’t verify the item’s accuracy or if the item is proven to be inaccurate, the item has to be removed from your credit report. The Act gives bureaus and data furnishers 30 days to investigate and remove inaccurate items. That time can extend to 45 days under certain circumstances. The actual timeframe depends on many factors, including postal mail timing.
How Credit Report Errors Occur
Credit report errors can occur for a number of reasons. The National Consumer Law Center identified four common causes in a 2009 report on the topic. And in a 2019 press release, it reported that not much has changed. The four common causes it originally identified include:
- Mixed files.If someone with the same name or a similar name applies for credit, a piece of their file becomes mixed with another file. A consumer with a common name like “John A. Smith,” for example, might see his file mixed with a John B. Smith or a John A. Smith, Jr.
- Identity theft.If someone has stolen your Social Security number, for example, she/she can open a new account in your name. This information then appears on your credit report and can be particularly difficult to remove.
- Furnisher errors.There are three big players when it comes to credit report accuracy: the credit bureau, you the consumers and a data furnisher. That last one is important—it includes the banks, lenders, debt collectors and rental companies that supply (AKA “furnish”) the credit bureaus the data that appears on your credit reports. Often, a furnisher reports something inaccurately, like a missed payment or a collection account that actually belongs to someone else.
- Re-aging of old debts. Certain debts have a ticking clock of sorts when it comes to your credit report. A collection account, for example, is supposed to age off of your credit report after 7 years and 180 days from when it was first delinquent. (Learn about the statutes of limitations on debts in each state across the U.S.)Re-aging occurs when a debt is sold to a third-party collector and the start date on the debt’s clock is muddied. This causes your credit to take a hit for much longer than it should under the law.
How to Find Out If You Have Derogatory Marks on Your Credit Report
Before you can dispute errors on your credit report and get them fixed, you need to find the error and hat led to the error. You can either do this on your own or hire a credit repair company to manage the process for you.
Find the Error
There are a few ways to find errors on your credit reports.
One is to look at your credit reports. You can get a free copy of your credit reports from each of the credit reporting agencies once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also pay for copies at other times.
You want to get copies for each of the major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This is because an error can exist on one report and not on the other two, and you never know which credit report a lender will use to make a lending decision. You want to make sure all three reports are accurate.
Go through every section of each of your credit reports with a fine-toothed comb. If you see any accounts you don’t recognize or late payments you think were on time, highlight them. You need to dispute each of those separately with the credit bureau who issued that report. Even if the same error appears on all three of your credit reports, you need to file separate disputes at each bureau.
You can’t make a blanket dispute for everything wrong on one report. Say, for example, you have two collection accounts you want to dispute on the same credit report, you have to file two separate disputes.
If the disputes are for the same account—two late payments on your mortgage, for example—you only need to file one dispute. You do though need to specify that you want both of the late payments removed.
When you finish your reviewing your credit reports, take stock of all the disputes you need to file. Depending on the number of inaccuracies on your credit report, the dispute process can be cumbersome.
The other way to find errors is by monitoring your credit. One way to do that is by getting a credit report card from Credit.com. That report card tracks how you’re doing in the five areas that go into your credit score and file—payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries. It’s updated every two weeks, so you can see quickly—and at no cost—if something changes.
How to Remove Negative Items from Your Credit
You can dispute errors on your credit report with each of the credit reporting agencies online or by mail. You can upload copies of supporting documentation to each of the credit bureaus online sites or include copies in your postal-mail letter if you decide to do go that route.
- By mail: P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374-0256
- By mail: P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016
If sending your dispute online:
- You don’t need to write a formal letter, but you do need to explain what the error is and where it appears on your report. You may want to write your explanation before starting your online dispute.
- You can submit it instantly to the bureau and can check the progress of your dispute online via a dispute portal.
- You can upload supporting documentation, which some people prefer for security reasons versus sending sensitive information through the mail.
- You’ll be notified of the results via email or can check the status of your dispute on the bureau’s dispute portal.
When sending your dispute by postal mail:
- Write a dispute letter—see the example below.
- Send your letter by certified mail, so you have tracking information of when it is received.
- Include copies of any supporting documentation. Don’t send originals. The last thing you want is to lose your evidence.
- You’ll hear back from the bureau regarding your dispute via U.S. mail, possibly after the 30-day window depending on how long it takes the letter to arrive at your address.
When filing your dispute, make sure to clearly identify each mistake, articulate the facts and explain your reason for disputing the information.
The more evidence you have, the stronger your case will be. Evidence is best in the form of supporting documentation. In some instances, it’s hard to determine what kinds of evidence are needed. For example, an identity theft victim may not know what he needs to provide to show he didn’t open an account. After all, he never signed up for it! If you have reason to believe you were the victim of identity theft—warning signs include mysterious addresses and accounts you never signed up for—learn how to fight back.
Unfortunately, evidence is where many people opt to hit the “easy button” on a credit dispute process and simply give up. That’s understandable, but you have options. You can hire a credit repair company to represent you to the credit bureaus.
There is a cost. But, a good credit repair company will explain exactly what it can and can’t do for you, will never guarantee a “100-point improvement in your credit score” (this is illegal, in fact), and will never ask for payment until after you’ve received services from them.
Credit repair companies are particularly helpful if you have multiple errors on your credit report or have situations like a major identity theft issue or a divorce decree that may require more explanation and expertise to dispute.
How to Write an Effective Dispute Letter or Explanation
If you take a DIY approach to credit repair, there are a few things to remember when writing a dispute letter or your explanation to use in an online dispute submission.
- Be clear and concise.A credit bureau is concerned about accuracy, so pinpoint exactly what is inaccurate, including the date of the inaccuracy, the account in question, the lender, etc.
- Don’t quote federal laws.Writing that you want to initiate a dispute is sufficient enough. Credit bureaus know the laws already.
- Include your return address, so your results can be sent to the right place. (When disputing errors online, you’ll enter your address as part of the process.)
Here’s a sample letter you can use to explain your disputes.
Jane Q. Consumer
123 Main Street
Mainstreet, USA 12345
January 30, 2016
Ref #: 000-111-2222
To Whom It May Concern:
I would like to dispute the following item on my credit report:
Wall Street Mortgage Co.
Partial account number: 7890.
My credit report shows a 30-day late payment in the amount of $781.32 for April 2019. However, the payment was not late. I have enclosed copies of my statements for April, May and June 2019 that together clearly show my payment for April was not 30 days late.
Please correct this as soon as possible.
Jane Q. Consumer