In 2012, more than 1,000 Americans went over their credit reports with an associate from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), looking for errors. The results weren’t good.
About one out of four of these consumers found inaccuracies on their credit report that could affect their credit score. That made some of them look less desirable to lenders, hurting their ability to borrow money or get the best interest rate on a loan.
However, the study also had some good news. When the consumers who found errors disputed them with the credit bureaus, four out of five of them succeeded in getting their credit reports changed. About 10% of consumers saw their credit score change as a result, and 5% managed to bump their score up by at least 25 points — enough to get them better loan rates in the future.
This study clearly shows how important it is to check your credit report regularly and dispute any inaccuracies you find. Here’s what you need to know about the sorts of errors you might find on your credit report, how they can hurt you, and how to fix them.
Types of Errors on Credit Reports
There are several kinds of errors that can show up on your credit report, both major and minor. According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), common credit reporting errors include:
- Incorrect name, address, or account numbers
- Closed accounts listed as open
- Credit accounts that aren’t yours (such as debts belonging to an ex-spouse)
- A single account that shows up more than once
- An open account that shows the wrong balance or credit limit
- Inaccurate payment information (such as an on-time payment listed as late)
- Accounts listed with you as the owner when you’re really just an authorized user
How Credit Reporting Errors Occur
Inaccurate information can find its way onto your credit report in a variety of ways. Possible sources of errors include:
- Inconsistencies in Your Name. Sometimes, problems occur because you applied for accounts using slightly different names, such as “Michael Smith” and “Mike Smith,” or used your birth name on one application and your married name on another. Minor inconsistencies like this can result in your credit report containing information that’s actually for another person whose name is similar to yours. That’s why it’s best to use exactly the same name and middle initial every time you apply for credit.
- Creditors Not Providing Information. Most banks and department stores that issue credit cards report information about your account to the credit bureaus. However, creditors aren’t required to do this, and some of them choose not to. If you have credit accounts that aren’t being reported, lenders could deny you a loan because you appear to have an “insufficient” credit file. You can deal with this type of error by asking your creditors to start reporting your info to the credit bureaus or by moving your account to a different provider who does this automatically.
- Clerical Errors. Mistakes happen. Sometimes, when you apply for credit using a handwritten form, the person who transcribes it enters your name, address, or Social Security number (SSN) incorrectly, or you make a typo when entering this information online. In other cases, you send in a loan or credit card payment, and someone at the bank accidentally applies it to the wrong account. Or a lender could accidentally report information on one of your accounts twice, making it look like you have more debt or open lines of credit than you do.
- Identity Theft. Most problems with your credit report are due to honest mistakes. However, sometimes errors show up because of identity theft — someone deliberately using your name to borrow money and stick you with the bill. If you see accounts you don’t remember opening or addresses where you’ve never lived, it’s a warning sign that identity thieves could be at work. It’s especially important to get to the bottom of these errors and set the record straight before the thieves cause even more harm.
Pro tip: Protect yourself from identity theft by signing up for a company like Lifelock. Lifelock will proactively monitor any potential threats to your identity. If your personal information is compromised, Lifelock will work to resolve any issues.
Why Errors Are Harmful
Errors on your credit report can hurt you in two ways. First, they can lower your credit score, which affects your life in more ways than you might realize. Having a low credit score can damage your chances of:
- Being approved for a loan
- Getting a good interest rate or favorable terms on a loan
- Renting an apartment (landlords often check your credit to see if you’re likely to pay the rent on time)
- Getting a job (employers sometimes use credit checks to weed out unreliable applicants)
- Getting security clearance if you apply for a government job that requires it
- Finding an affordable auto insurance policy (drivers with poor credit are more likely to be involved in accidents)
Even more seriously, errors on your credit report are often a sign of identity theft. Having your identity stolen could harm your credit, cost you money for bills you didn’t run up, hurt your chances of employment, and in extreme cases, even get you arrested for someone else’s crime.
Trying to restore your identity after it’s been stolen can be an expensive, time-consuming, and extremely stressful process. And the longer the theft has been going on, the bigger the hassle and expense are likely to be. That’s why it pays to catch cases of identity theft and nip them in the bud as fast as possible before they can do too much damage.
Finding & Fixing Errors
If there’s an error on your credit report, it pays to catch it and fix it as quickly as possible. The good news is that correcting an error doesn’t cost a cent, though it does take a bit of time and effort. Here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Check Your Credit Report
You can’t fix errors on your credit report if you don’t know about them, so the first step in the process is to check your credit report. You can get a free annual credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com.
You can get all three credit reports at once or stagger them throughout the year, checking one credit report every four months. Since any error that shows up on one credit report is likely to be on the other two, staggering your reports is an excellent way to catch errors quickly before they become a problem.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all three major credit bureaus are offering consumers even more frequent access to their credit reports. According to the FTC, you can get a free report from each bureau through AnnualCreditReport.com as often as once a week through April 2021. And even once that deadline is passed, you can get a free credit report and a free credit score every 30 days from Experian by signing up for an account.
In addition to these free reports, you’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report if something happens to suggest there’s a problem with your credit. You can request a free copy if you’re turned down for a loan, a job, or an insurance policy due to something in your credit report. You can also get a free copy if you place a fraud alert on your credit file, indicating you suspect you’re a victim of identity theft. Finally, you can get a free copy of your report once a year if you’re unemployed and are planning to start a job search within 60 days.
When you get your report, here are a few things to look at:
- Your Personal Information. This includes your name, address, date of birth, and SSN.
- Open Accounts. Make sure all the credit accounts you have are on your credit report and that all the accounts listed on your report are really yours. Also, check to make sure the account information is accurate. That includes the creditor’s name, account number, credit limit, and payment history, including any late payments.
- Closed Accounts. Check the same account information for any accounts listed on your credit report as closed. Also, make sure the information about when the account was closed and who closed it — you or the lender — is accurate.
- Negative Information. Look for any negative information on your account, such as judgments, liens, accounts sent to collections, or bankruptcies. If any of this information is inaccurate, that’s an obvious problem. But it’s also a problem if the information is out of date. Judgments, liens, and collections should disappear from your credit report after seven years, and Chapter 7 bankruptcies should vanish after 10.
- Credit Inquiries. Your credit report also shows credit inquiries, or all the times someone has looked at your report. These could show up because you checked your own credit, applied for a loan, or applied for something else involving a credit check, such as a job or insurance policy. If you see credit inquiries for a time when you didn’t do any of these things, that could be a sign of identity theft.
If any of these details are wrong on one of your three credit reports, it’s a good idea to check the other two and see if the error shows up there as well. If it does, you can contact all three credit bureaus and get it fixed on all your reports at once.
Step 2: Gather Evidence
If you find any information on your credit report that you want to correct, you’ll need some evidence that the information is wrong. Depending on what the mistake is, that could include bank statements, credit card statements, loan documents, or your birth certificate.
For example, if your ex-spouse is listed incorrectly on one of your accounts, get a copy of the divorce decree. Providing copies of these documents to back up your claim will make it faster and easier for the credit bureau’s investigators to confirm that the error you’re pointing out really is an error.
If you believe the error you found is due to possible identity theft, it’s a good idea to provide a document to back up this claim as well. File a complaint at IdentityTheft.gov and get a copy of your report to send to the credit bureau. If you’ve filed a police report about the identity theft, get a copy of that as well.
Step 3: Dispute the Error
It costs nothing to dispute an error on your credit report, and you can do it as often as necessary. Each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — has its own online form for this purpose.
You can also dispute an error by phone or snail mail using the phone number or mailing address provided on the bureau’s website. If you choose to file your dispute by mail, make sure to use certified mail and request a return receipt so you can prove the credit bureau received your complaint.
Whatever method you choose to file your dispute, be prepared to provide the following information:
- Your name, date of birth, and SSN.
- Your current address and any other addresses where you’ve lived in the past two years.
- A copy or scan (not the original) of a government-issued ID, such as your driver’s license or passport.
- A copy of a bank statement or utility bill showing your name and current address.
- A list of all the items on your credit report that you’re disputing. Clearly identify each item, explain why it’s wrong, provide copies or scans (again, not the originals) of all your supporting documents, and ask to have the incorrect item corrected or removed. If you’re making your dispute by mail, it could help to include a copy of your credit report with the incorrect items circled.
If you’re not sure how to word your complaint, you can find sample letters on the websites of the FTC and the CFPB. Keep a copy of your letter for your files, as well as originals of any supporting documents you enclose with it.
Step 4: Contact the Lender
After you’ve contacted the credit bureau, the FTC recommends also contacting the lender who first reported the inaccurate information to the credit bureau to let them know you’re disputing it. This company is sometimes known as the “furnishing company” or “furnisher.” Send this company a letter containing the same information you gave to the credit bureau and attach the same supporting documents.
Both the FTC and the CFPB offer sample letters you can use when contacting a lender. In your letter, ask the furnisher to “cc” you on any correspondence it sends to the credit bureau. That way, you’ll know whether the lender has agreed to correct the error or is continuing to report the same information.
Some experts suggest that you can save time by contacting the furnishing company first before you file your dispute with the credit bureau. All the credit bureau can really do in its investigation is to tell the lender about the error, so going directly to the lender saves a step.
However, if the error on your credit report is an identity-related mistake, such as an incorrect name or address, it probably originated with the credit bureau itself. In this case, you’ll get quicker results by going to the bureau first. You’re likely to get a faster resolution with this type of problem since the bureau can fix its own mistake without having to reach out to anyone else.
You should also check the other two versions of your credit report, if you haven’t already done so, to make sure the error doesn’t show up there as well.
Step 5: Wait for a Response
In most cases, the credit bureau is required to investigate your complaint within 30 days. Within five days after that, it must provide you with a copy of its results in writing. This notice must include the full name, address, and phone number of the furnishing company, in case you didn’t already know it. The bureau must also send you a free copy of your credit report if it changes as a result of the dispute.
The furnishing company also has 30 days to investigate your dispute. If the lender agrees with you that there is an error, it will report the corrected information back to the bureau within that time. It will also report it to the other two credit bureaus so they can correct their records.
If it considers the information accurate, it will not correct the error, but it must still notify the bureau about your dispute.
However, the credit bureau and the furnisher don’t have to investigate your dispute if they consider it to be “frivolous.” This can happen because:
- You’ve submitted inaccurate or incomplete information in your dispute
- You’ve tried several times to dispute the same error without providing any new information
- You’re attempting to claim your entire credit report is wrong without providing any proof
If the bureau finds your dispute to be frivolous, it must tell you so within five days and explain why. If this happens, you can try to submit the dispute again with new or corrected information to back up your claims.
Step 6: Review the Results
Disputing an error on your credit report doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the furnishing company continues to insist the information it reported is correct. If this happens, you can ask the credit bureau to include a note on your credit file saying you have disputed the item.
You can also ask the credit bureau to provide a copy of this statement to anyone who viewed your credit report recently, though there’s usually a fee for this service.
Even if the furnishing company agrees to correct the error, it can take a while for the change to show up on your credit report. It depends on when the lender sends its information to the credit bureau and when the bureau updates its records. If you recheck your credit report in four months and the error still hasn’t been fixed, contact both the credit bureau and the furnishing company again to make sure they have the correct information.
Once your credit report has been corrected, you can request that the credit bureau send an updated copy of it to anyone who checked your credit in the past six months. If you’re in the process of looking for a job, you can ask the credit bureau to send your updated report to anyone who viewed your file in the past two years.
If you’re not happy with how your dispute turned out — if it took too long, the investigators were rude, or you didn’t succeed in getting a legitimate error corrected — you can file an online complaint with the CFPB. Explain the problem as clearly and fully as you can, noting whether the credit bureau or the furnishing company caused it. The CFPB will pass along your complaint to the company and let you know how it responds.
Pro tip: If your credit score has been affected by inaccuracies on your credit report, make sure you sign up for Experian Boost. It’s free, and it will give your credit score an immediate boost by using payment history from your utility bills.
Fixing an error on your credit report can be a long, sometimes frustrating process, especially if it takes you multiple rounds of submitting your dispute with new information. However, that’s all the more reason not to delay getting started. The faster you report an error, the sooner you can get it fixed and the less damage it can do to your credit score.
However, that doesn’t mean you should dispute every piece of negative information on your credit report in the hope of getting it changed. If the negative information is accurate, your claim will almost certainly be dismissed as frivolous. You’ll just be wasting your time and the credit bureau’s.
The only thing that can remove accurate negative information from your credit report is time. Hard inquiries vanish from your credit report after two years, late and unpaid bills after seven, and Chapter 7 bankruptcies after 10. So as long as you’re using credit responsibly, you’re sure to improve your credit score over time.