Easy Money: How to dispute mistakes on your credit report

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Easy Money: How to dispute mistakes on your credit report

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The information in your credit report directly affects your financial wellbeing. It helps lenders, creditors, landlords and even employers determine your creditworthiness and decide whether or not to work with you. Unfortunately, credit reports often contain errors and inaccurate information.

Mistakes on your credit report — especially ones that cast you in a negative light — can drag down your credit score and tarnish your financial image. When you find a mistake, you should get it corrected as soon as you can. Americans have the legal right to an accurate credit report.

Here’s how to dispute a mistake on your credit report.

Identify the mistake(s) you wish to dispute

First, get copies of your credit report. You can get your reports for free from the three major credit reporting agencies once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Make sure to request your report from all three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — as they may not all contain the same information.

Next, read through each credit report to identify mistakes. Common errors include:

  • Incorrect identifying information (e.g., misspelled name or wrong address)

  • Accounts that belong to someone with the same name or a similar name

  • Accounts you don’t recognize and never opened

  • Accounts you closed that still show as open

  • Accounts that incorrectly show as late or delinquent

  • Hard inquiries from credit applications that you never submitted

Highlight all the items you believe are inaccurate so you can begin the dispute process.

Genius tip: It generally isn’t a good use of your time to dispute accurate negative information in the hopes it will be removed. While there’s no law barring you from doing so, your dispute will be denied if the party that reported the information to the credit bureau (known as the “data furnisher”) can provide proof that it is correct.

Why are there errors on my credit report?

Errors can happen for several reasons. Credit files get mixed, especially among Americans with similar names, or a furnisher sometimes forgets to update their system.

Credit report errors, especially ones involving mysterious accounts or new loan applications you don't recognize, are sometimes a sign of deeper identify theft. Learn the tell-tales signs to see if extra precautions, like a full-on credit freeze, are in order, following your dispute.

Submit a dispute with the credit bureau

Once you find an error on your credit report, submit a dispute to the credit bureau reporting the mistake. You can contest multiple items in the same dispute. But you can't contest mistakes across credit bureaus, meaning if an error appears on all three of your main credit reports, you can't just file a dispute with Experian and expect Equifax and TransUnion to address the issue. They operate as separate, private entities, so you need to file a dispute with all three.

Each credit bureau website (see the Recommended Reading section at the end of this article for links) will give you instructions on how to submit your dispute, but there are three main ways to get it done:

  • Online: The credit bureau’s online dispute center is the easiest way to submit a dispute. You will need to enter some identifying information to locate your account and begin the process.

  • Mail: You can submit your dispute, along with all supporting documents, by snail mail to the credit bureau’s dispute center.

  • Phone: You can initiate your dispute by phone, though you may need to submit additional documentation. Make sure to have your credit report on hand before you call the credit bureau.

Each credit bureau provides a dispute form that can be completed online or printed, filled out and mailed. While the dispute form is sufficient for many mistakes, you may find that a dispute letter allows you to go into more detail.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides dispute letter templates for each credit bureau.

Writing a dispute letter

The dispute form and/or letter should include, at minimum:

  • Your full name, phone number, address and date of birth

  • The report confirmation number from your credit report, if available

  • The name of the furnisher that reported the information you are disputing. Common furnishers include banks, lenders, credit card issuers and utility companies

  • Information, such as an account number, that helps the credit bureau identify the mistake

  • An explanation of why the disputed item is incorrect

  • An explanation of any supporting documents you are including

Whether submitting your dispute online, by mail or over the phone, include copies of the credit report with the mistake highlighted and copies of any supporting documents, such as a payment receipt or confirmation of a closed account.

“If you’re sending supporting documents, always send copies,” Jen Smith, personal finance expert at The Penny Hoarder, says. “Things can be easily lost in transit and paper shuffles and originals are always safest with you. Send letters by certified mail with a ‘return receipt requested,’ so you can document when it’s received.”

Submit a dispute with the furnisher

Alternatively, contact the furnisher — i.e. the lender, credit card issuer, collections agency, etc. — to have them initiate their own investigation. If they find in your favor, they have to submit updated information to the credit bureaus. You can also contact the furnisher and the credit bureau to put some flanking pressure on the furnisher, says the CFPB (aka the Yelp of financial services).

Send the furnisher a letter that explains the mistake and why you believe it is erroneous. Request an investigation and ask the furnisher to correct the information on your credit report.

Make sure to include contact information and account information that will help the furnisher identify you and/or contact you regarding their investigation. You should also include copies of the credit report, highlighting the mistake, and supporting documents.

“You should be able to see the person, company or organization who reported the information in to the credit reporting company,” Smith says. “If your debt was passed onto a debt collection agency and they sent the information, there’s no need to contact the original creditor.”

Whether you contact the credit bureau, the furnisher or both, the matter should be investigated fully. Just bear in mind that if you aren’t getting anywhere with the furnisher, submitting your dispute to the credit bureau might be a better way to go.

Wait for the credit bureau or furnisher to investigate

After you submit your dispute, you should be prepared to wait anywhere from 30 to 45 days.

If you submitted your dispute with the credit bureau, they will contact the furnisher and provide all relevant information and documents related to your dispute. The furnisher will be instructed to investigate, verify the accuracy of the information, provide a response and update their own records. You may receive a reference number so you can check on the status of your dispute.

“Credit reporting companies have 30 days from the date your letter is received to investigate your claim,” Smith says. “They can add 15 more days to this if they need additional documentation or documents are received late.”

If you submitted a dispute to the furnisher, they also typically have 30 to 45 days to investigate and report results. They will inform the credit bureau about the dispute, and the item will show up as disputed on your credit report.

Receiving your credit report dispute results

Following an investigation initiated by the credit bureau or the furnisher, the furnisher will respond to your dispute in one of three ways:

  • It’ll update the information as a result of your dispute.

  • It’ll remove the information from your credit report.

  • It’ll leave the information on your credit report unchanged.

If you submitted your dispute with the credit bureau, you should receive a written statement informing you of the results. The credit bureau will also provide the name, address and phone number of the furnisher and a free copy of your credit report if the dispute resulted in a change.

Learn more about what a good credit score looks like.

If you submitted your dispute with the furnisher and they find in your favor, they will have to notify every credit bureau they reported the mistake to and have your credit report updated.

Genius tip: If your dispute was incomplete, incorrect or you are attempting to dispute the same item more than once without submitting any additional information, the credit bureau or furnisher can decide your dispute is frivolous and take no further action. They must notify you of this decision within five days, along with their reasoning.

Following up on a credit report dispute

If the mistake is not removed from your credit report, you can request that the credit bureau include a “statement of dispute” in your credit file. This statement will appear to anyone accessing your credit report. Most negative items — valid or not — will fall off your credit report after seven years and their effect on your credit score will lessen over time.

If the mistake is removed, remember to follow up. Updates to each affected credit report may not happen immediately. It depends on the credit bureau’s update process and when the furnisher sends the updated information. If the incorrect information still appears on your report after a few months, you should contact the furnisher and the credit bureaus.

Recommended reading

Not satisfied with your accurate, but so-so credit score? We’ve got a few ways to improve your credit in 30 days or less.

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