Errors on credit reports are so common, they’re the number one complaint on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website, according to a 2017 analysis by LendEU, a student loan refinancing company. And though you may just think of them as a nuisance, these errors can have serious consequences in your financial life.
One example: More than 70 percent of people denied a mortgage are turned down because of poor credit, according to a recent study by Lexington Law, and those low scores are often the result of an error on someone’s report. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, just nine percent of mortgages were issued to borrowers with subprime credit scores in the second quarter of 2017. In other words, if errors on your report are dragging down your score, good luck getting approved for a mortgage.
But there are ways to remove negative marks, as inconvenient as they are.
Check the age
Most negative information will stay on your credit report for seven years, save for bankruptcies which remain for 10 years. After that, it should fall off your report—if not, the bureaus may have the wrong date for the debt, in which case you need to send them proof of when the debt occurred (see below for how to do that).
That said, it gets complicated and varies by state, so read this report from Credit.com to learn more about the specifics.
(“Good” accounts that were closed will usually fall off after 10 years, according to Credit.com, but usually good marks will remain indefinitely.)
Compare your 3 credit reports
Your credit reports at Equifax, Experian and TransUnion will all be different, and may report different debts or have mistakes on them. You can download them for free once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com. If there are mistakes, contact the bureau to have it removed—they have easy to follow instructions on their websites (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion), or you can send in a complaint by certified mail (the Federal Trade Commission and CFPB have sample dispute letters you can send). Your letter should include the following, per the CFPB:
Contact information for you including complete name, address, and telephone number
Report confirmation number, if available
Clearly identify each mistake, such as an account number for any account you may be disputing
Explain why you are disputing the information
Request that the information be removed or corrected
Enclose a copy of the portion of your credit report that contains the disputed items and circle or highlight the disputed items. You should include copies (not originals) of documents that support your position.
Keep copies of the letter. The bureau should investigate within 30 days and mail you a response. If the bureau does correct your report, it must notify all of the credit reporting companies it sent inaccurate information to.
You can also send a letter to your creditor—for example, the credit card company or landlord—telling them that you are disputing the mistake on your report. CFPB has a sample letter for them, too.
Contact federal regulators
If contacting the creditors doesn’t work, you can also send a complaint to their regulators, and/or file a complaint with the CFPB.
Again, you’ll want to send a complaint by certified mail to the creditor’s regulator and keep a copy.
Get an attorney involved
After all of that, you may still have mistakes on your report: In 2015, the FTC followed up on a 2012 study, and found that of 121 consumers who had at least one unresolved dispute on their report in 2012, 84 consumers (around 70 percent) still believed that some of the information was incorrect. So you can see it may take a while.
Why does this happen? Because the credit bureaus simply don’t care that much about mistakes affecting your credit. “The credit bureaus don’t want to spend money investigating disputes [because] there’s no profit for them,” Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, told Time in 2012. “That’s why they’ve automated the heck out of the dispute system.”
Hiring an attorney or credit repair agency will likely cost hundreds of dollars and there’s no guarantee of a resolution. But if you’re in a time crunch—say, you’re trying to close on a home—then it could be worth it.