Fixing your credit isn’t as difficult as you might think. Before you pay for professional help, learn how you can be a pro yourself. Here’s why and when you’ll need a credit repair attorney and when you can DIY.
Run a quick Google search for “credit repair,” and you’ll see all sorts of interesting options pop up. Many make wild guarantees about what they can do for your credit score. But are these claims valid? And should you ever trust the companies making claims like these? Let’s dive in and explore why and when you might need a credit repair attorney.
Mistakes on Your Credit Report
One of the most common issues you’ll see talked about on credit repair attorney websites is the problem of mistakes on your credit report. And it’s true. Many consumers’ credit reports do contain inaccurate or erroneous information. One study from the Federal Trade Commission showed that more than one in five consumers have an error in their file that could impact their credit score.
Errors can be a problem. And they can happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes someone else’s information gets filed as yours. Sometimes you’ve been an unknowing victim of identity theft. And other times the moving parts of your credit file have caused duplication or other errors. For instance, if an account goes to collections, it might bounce around to different companies, resulting in duplicative information in your credit file.
Credit repair attorneys will often tell you that you need to hire them to fix these mistakes. But the truth is that each credit reporting bureau has a process for reporting on and fixing errors. It’s just a matter of getting the appropriate documentation together, filing it, and following up diligently.
Want to see exactly what it looks like to fix mistakes on your credit report? Check out this how-to article. Sure, an attorney could do much of this on your behalf if you give them permission–for a fee. But you can also do it on your own without spending that much additional time. Either way, you’ll have to gather the documentation on your end.
Bad Decisions Weighing You Down
What if your credit is terrible because of bad financial decisions you’ve made? These days, credit scoring algorithms are getting more adept at figuring out who really has good financial behavior and who decidedly does not. So if you’re constantly making payments that are just a few days late or running up credit card balances, it’ll eventually catch up with you.
Risky financial behavior can lead to a low credit score. And that can make it hard to get a decent interest rate on a loan–or to get any loan at all.
But there’s not a whole lot a credit repair attorney can do about this. If you continue making bad choices, you’ll continue to watch your credit score fall. The key to reversing this pattern is to get your own behavior in check. This includes:
Doing these things consistently will naturally result in an increasing credit score. And there’s nothing a credit repair attorney can do to help you in this process unless they also offer financial counseling and accountability. (Which they usually do not!)
What About Bankruptcy?
Some credit repair attorneys will say that they can help you remove a bankruptcy from your credit report more quickly. But this is flat out not true. Some companies do use illegal techniques, such as actually giving you someone else’s Social Security number to borrow under. (That’s not credit repair, by the way. That’s identity theft.)
But outside of getting rid of your Social Security number (again, illegal!), there’s nothing anyone can do to get rid of that bankruptcy filing. It’ll drop off of your credit report eventually, as all such bad records do. And in the meantime, you can still increase your credit score by cultivating the good habits we talked about above.
You can pay an attorney all the money in the world, and they won’t have the power to make that bankruptcy filing go away any more quickly.
DIY Credit Repair: Time vs. Money
I’m not saying that all credit repair attorneys are running a scam, though some certainly are. But what you’re really trading when you pay someone else to improve your credit score is money for time. Often a whole lot of money for something that doesn’t cost you a whole lot of time.
Let’s say you find an account on your credit report that’s been paid off, but it’s listed as open and overdue. That’s likely having a terrible negative effect on your credit score.
If you go the DIY route, you’ll need to gather documentation about when you paid off the account. Then you’ll need to file a complaint with the credit bureau(s) reporting the erroneous account. And then you’ll probably want to call the creditor listed there and work with them to get the error removed. After you get all of your information together and file, you’ll wait. Credit reporting companies have 30 days, generally, to get back to you with an answer.
If the credit bureau calls your claim frivolous or refuses to change things despite your documentation, then you might call an attorney. But this is unlikely if you can prove that you paid off the account in question.
On the other hand, you could start out with the attorney. First you’ll have to do your research to find a reputable one. Then you’ll have to explain the situation and gather the necessary documentation. Then the attorney will file that information on your behalf, and you’ll still wait.
All told, you don’t save that much time by using the attorney. But you likely paid them a hefty fee for the minimal service they offered of filing a form letter with the credit bureau and your creditor.
Not-for-Profits Can Help
What if you’re just struggling, overwhelmed, and you aren’t even sure where to begin with repairing your credit? In this case, you may qualify for help from a real not-for-profit organization that offers financial counseling and coaching.
Reputable nonprofits will often offer services like budgeting help and credit counseling. This can help you figure out how to get your financial habits under control. A counselor can also help you know where to start when repairing your credit or correcting errors and will be able to walk with you through that process.
And if you meet income requirements, legal aid nonprofits may even be able to add some weight to your credit error letters. Sometimes if your creditor or a credit bureau is resistant to working with you, sending an impressive-sounding letter from an attorney can be helpful. But you may not have to pay through the nose for such a letter. Instead, start by seeing if there are nonprofit legal aid options in your area that may be able to help.
Don’t Always Steer Clear of Attorneys
For the most part, you should at least try to fix your credit related problems yourself. Because most of the time, even fixing errors in your credit report is fairly simple. However, if things get more complicated or you find that creditors or bureaus are resisting your efforts, you may need to call in reinforcements.
If this is the case, just be sure that you do your due diligence so you don’t spend loads of money on an attorney that doesn’t actually do much to help you. Here’s what to look for if you do decide to hire a credit repair attorney:
- Look for a company that tells you how to do it yourself. If a credit repair company doesn’t ask first if you’ve tried the DIY approach, they’re not really out to help you. Ethical companies will tell you to work on simple issues yourself first.
- Make sure it doesn’t sound too good to be true. Companies that offer a specific increase in your credit score in a short amount of time aren’t telling the truth. Credit scores are much too complicated to be making these types of claims. So if it sounds far-fetched, they’re probably selling oceanfront property in Arizona.
- Don’t pay up front. The FTC actually bars companies from charging up front for credit repair services. So walk away from any contracts that require payment before the company does anything for you.
- Read the contract. As always, be sure to look through the contract carefully so that you understand exactly what services you are and are not going to get from the credit repair attorney. Be sure you’re paying a reasonable fee for reasonable services.
- Be sure they explain everything. A good credit repair attorney understands how credit works and what the credit repair process looks like. Ask for explanations of what, exactly, they’ll do on your behalf so you know what’s happening the whole time.
The bottom line is that 99% of the time, you can do your credit repair on your own. And 100% of the time you should at least try to do it on your own the first time around. But if you run into resistant creditors, identity theft, or complicated situations, a reputable credit repair attorney could help you repair your credit score a bit more quickly and with less headache on your part.
Topics: Personal Finance