If you were one of the 145 million Americans whose info was stolen in the Equifax breach, you should be worried about keeping your financial accounts safe. Columnist Kim Komando shows you how.
Kim Komando, special for USA TODAY
A military veteran was denied a car loan in Arizona because a credit bureau said the person was dead.
Another Arizonan couldn’t buy a house because a credit report inaccurately claimed missing child-support payments, despite court documents showing they were paid on time.
“I am sick of these credit agencies. Over and over I go thru the dispute process,” a third Arizonan wrote to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “They just tell me to pound sand. I don’t trust them anymore.”
Mistakes are rising
Mistakes on credit reports are rising, data shows, making it even more important for consumers to check for accuracy each year.
Complaints about errors against the three major U.S. credit agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — more than doubled in Arizona between 2015 and 2017, according to an Arizona Republic review of CFPB records. The records do not include names of complainants.
“We’ve been constantly busy filing lawsuits to get credit reports fixed,” said Gary Nitzkin, managing attorney of Credit Repair Lawyers of America, which has an office in Phoenix.
Some errors are minor misspellings of names, but others involve identity theft and fraud that can badly damage credit scores.
“Besides losing the deal on their dream home, a lot of (people) won’t qualify for jobs,” Nitzkin said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Why are credit agencies making more mistakes?
Americans filed at least 91 million complaints about credit-report errors in 2016, according to a report from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee.
Credit agencies blame credit-repair companies for driving up the number of complaints. Some companies, which people hire to fix bad credit, charge a fee per dispute, meaning they have an incentive to submit complaints, the credit bureaus told Nelson.
But technology and social media have also made it easier to find personal information and steal your identity, Nitzkin said. He’s even seen family members and trusted professionals do it.
“All you need is a name, address and Social Security number,” he said. “With those three things, you can open up credit cards. You can do all sorts of nefarious things.”
Also, with more than 200 million credit reports to keep track of, credit-bureau investigators don’t spend enough time on each case, Nitzkin said.
“I feel their pain. It’s a herculean task,” he said. “But the law requires them to conduct a reasonable reinvestigation” after a complaint is filed.
How can you fix your credit report?
First, request a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from all three bureaus by going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or calling 1-877-322-8228.
Then, look closely.
- Are your name, address and place of employment correct?
- Are there any debt collection items, foreclosures, judgments or bankruptcies that don’t belong to you or have the wrong information?
- Are your credit cards and other bills reported as late when you paid them on time?
- Who has pulled your credit report in the past two years? Make sure you authorized each one.
If you find mistakes, send a dispute letter to the credit-reporting agency, such as Experian, and the group that provided the information, such as your bank.
Include your name, address and an explanation of the specific error. Include copies of documents that support your position. Here’s a sample letter.
Credit bureaus must investigate, usually within 30 days, and give you a written response.
What if the dispute letter doesn’t work?
If credit bureaus do not fix your report after a dispute letter, you can contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for help at consumerfinance.gov/complaint/ or call 855-411-2372.
You can also complain to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov.
In serious cases, consider hiring a lawyer. You may be able to find one for free.
For instance, credit agencies pay Nitzkin’s fees if he wins the cases, not his clients.
A lawsuit may be worth the peace of mind, as one Arizona consumer found out after being threatened by creditors because of someone else’s debt and using vacation days to handle the issue.
“I would have gladly settled or paid this debt if it were mine. I swear on my life,” the person wrote. “Sorry for complaining. I try to keep in mind my blessings each & every day, but how they are doing me is wrong.”
Have you been scammed or defrauded? Contact consumer protection reporter Rebekah L. Sanders at [email protected] or fill out our online form.
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