An error on your credit report can make it harder—or impossible—to get a loan. Bad credit can also hurt your chances of getting a job offer or obtaining affordable insurance. Make it a point to get your free credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com, the website run by the “Big Three” credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—and authorized by the federal goverment. We recommend asking for one report every four months to get a more comprehensive picture of your credit throughout the year. That way, you can avoid costly "credit monitoring" services.
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If you see mistakes in your credit report—even small ones—dispute them right away. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) of 1970 requires credit bureaus—also called credit-reporting agencies—to correct or delete inaccurate, incomplete, or unverifiable information on your credit report, usually within 30 days.
Under the credit-reporting law, creditors and credit-reporting agencies must conduct meaningful and detailed investigations of complaints. If they don’t, consumers may have a claim for actual damages, statutory damages, and punitive damages.
Here are some tips for getting satisfaction:
- Communicate in writing. Never try to solve a major dispute on a credit-bureau website or by phone. Always send correspondence by registered mail or certified mail.
- Keep all documents until the dispute is resolved.
- Notarize your letter before you send it.
- Send a copy of your complaint to the company that generated the mistake.
- Provide complete identification. Include your full name and Social Security number, and a copy of your driver’s license, utility bill, and other identification. Credit-reporting agencies will often reject a complaint because they conclude that they need more identification.
- Complain to your state’s consumer-affairs office or attorney general’s office, or to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB tries to investigate all disputes. An analysis of CFPB data by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in 2013 found that the bureau was able to get the credit-reporting agencies to provide consumers relief—either a monetary payment or a correction in a report—in 30 percent of cases.
- Consult a lawyer. If your efforts and those of government staffers aren’t getting anywhere, you may have to sue. Contact a consumer-protection attorney through the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
- Don’t do business with credit-repair companies. They’ll charge you to do things you can easily do yourself. In some cases, the advice they give is downright dangerous. Nathaniel Lewis of Richmond, Va., says the companies he went to charged him almost $1,000 but didn’t get incorrect information erased from his credit records. Worse, one recommended that he declare bankruptcy, an inappropriate step.
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—Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)
A version of this article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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