How to access, and fix, a screwy credit report

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How to access, and fix, a screwy credit report

This past summer, I moved to a new city and decided it was time to review my credit history, since potential landlords often pull either your credit report or credit score. That meant it was time to make a stop at annualcreditreport.com* and get my free credit reports from the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Although I’ve written about credit reports and credit scores, I hadn’t actually pulled any of my credit reports in years. I’m like the cobbler whose own children go barefoot, except I also don’t know where my children have been or how old they are anymore.

That’s why, although it’s better to stagger your free credit reports by pulling only one every four months, I decided to get all three at once—and was promptly denied access to two of them because I answered one or more of the verification questions incorrectly.

This was a problem because I could see two significant errors on the one credit report I was able to pull, which meant the credit score I was seeing through my credit card company was lower than it should have been. A low credit score can lead to higher interest rates on loans, denied rental applications, or even a missed job opportunity. And since you don’t know which bureau the lender, landlord, or employer will contact, all three need to be accurate.

I set about correcting these mistakes, and what I discovered over the next couple of weeks was that while it’s relatively easy to be shut out of your own credit report, it’s also relatively easy to work around this limitation if you look beyond annualcreditreport.com. (Need help correcting mistakes? Head to the FTC for in-depth tips on how to fix mistakes in your credit report.) Here are some of the things I learned.

*Remember that annualcreditreport.com is the only official source for all three free credit reports. There are other for-profit sites, but you’ll end up paying if you go through them.

Don't give up

Pulling your credit reports can sometimes feel like a Through the Looking Glass adventure without logic or reason.

After failing to pull my credit report from Experian for free, I successfully opened a paid account on their website and accessed my credit report without any problems. But when I tried to dispute a record there, the request was rejected because Experian said it still couldn’t verify my identity, even though it had just sold me a copy of my report.

On the other hand, even though I couldn’t pull my free TransUnion credit report, I was able to push corrections through to TransUnion by going through CreditKarma, which is a free service that provides access to your TransUnion and Equifax credit scores as well as summary credit reports.

Does any of this make sense? No, but it shows that you can’t rely on your experiences with one credit bureau when dealing with another, so keep trying other routes if you run into dead ends.

Try alternative methods

If you can’t pull your report through annualcreditreport.com, you can try requesting your free copy over the phone or through the mail.

Or, if you’re willing to pay and need answers fast, you can try getting it directly through a credit bureau like I did with Experian. It hurt to have to pay for access to my own credit report, but by going this route I managed to get a copy within minutes.

Try to access the same info through free third party services

As I mentioned above, I was able to successfully dispute an issue with TransUnion through CreditKarma. This worked as a sort of back door into my unobtainable official credit report at TransUnion, and thanks to cross-pollination among the bureaus (more on this below), my corrections showed up on other reports later.

Something to keep in mind here: Credit repair experts say it’s better to dispute errors through snail mail so that you have a written record, but I was impatient and addressing relatively straightforward errors, so disputing online worked for me. However, you should read the fine print if you file an online dispute, because you may have to follow up with a mailed statement in order to keep any arbitration rights.

Make sure your personal information is correct wherever you can

I’m a big fan of online privacy and I always felt a Ron Swanson level of pride that the credit bureaus never could get my previous addresses or employer data right. This blew up in my face when I tried to pull my credit reports and couldn’t prove to the bureaus that I was really me, so one of the first things I did once I was able to access my reports was address missing or incorrect personal information.

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It’s still not all correct, but now I’m aware of, say, which employer is misspelled or marked as current when I haven’t worked there since college, and which previous home address has extra bits that don’t exist in real life. This helps me answer future verification questions "correctly" even when they’re not technically correct.

Have a credit report on hand for reference when answering verification questions

This sounds like a catch-22 tip — make sure you have a credit report so you can get a credit report! — but in reality it’s unlikely that you’ll be totally shut out from all three credit reports at the same time. Even if you can’t access them through annualcreditreport.com, you can probably access at least a summary of one or more of them through a credit card account or a free credit score service like Credit Karma or WalletHub, or you can simply pay for one like I did.

Take whatever report you have and review it closely before you attempt to pull your other reports, so that you’re familiar with what’s on there and can answer verification questions accurately. There’s no guarantee that another credit report will have the same information, or the same errors, but having a potential key is better than not having one at all.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you have a list of your old addresses, if you’re like me and jettison that data from your memory once you’ve moved.

If you can’t fix a mistake on one report, try disputing it through another one

I tried correcting my reports all at the same time, and was disappointed to have some of my requests rejected because of the same verification issues that blocked me from getting my free copies. Even so, once the correction had been made on one credit report, it eventually showed up on the other two reports. If you see a mistake on two reports but can only get it fixed on one, check back on the second in a couple of months, because it may have fixed itself by then.

But remember, if you have a serious dispute, you may want to file it using certified mail or a phone call. This doesn’t mean the actual dispute will go smoothly — there are still problems with how disputes are handled by credit bureaus and third parties like debt collectors—but you’ll have a better record of your dispute if you have to follow up on it again later.

Come back and try again in a month or so

If you weren’t able to pull a free credit report but you’ve since made corrections to that report or another one, try pulling it again after a month or so. When I tried to access my Equifax report in May, I was rejected. When I tried again in September, I was able to pull it without any problems. Presumably the fixes I made to my TransUnion record crossed over to my Equifax record, or I was better able to answer the verification questions because I had my other credit reports in front of me to double check the answers.

None of these tips are guaranteed to help. For example, even though TransUnion was my key to fixing the errors on all three credit reports, I still can’t pull my free TransUnion report from annualcreditreport.com (I’m now waiting on a mailed version).

But the good news is that even if you can’t access your official free report, with some perseverance and creative use of third party services, you can still do quite a bit indirectly to fix smaller errors.