If you've already spent the past several months -- or even years -- trying to scrub errors from your credit reports, it may feel like you have no choice but to live with the inaccurate marks.
Don't give up. There are ways you can beat the frustration-causing standard credit report dispute process, say experts.
"The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that the credit reporting agencies, such as Experian and Equifax and TransUnion, conduct a reasonable investigation whenever a consumer disputes information on their credit report," says Chi Chi Wu, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The problem is, they rarely do, she says. Instead, credit reporting agencies often rely on the lenders, debt collectors and other data providers that furnished the misinformation to investigate a dispute. If the furnisher of the information mistakenly verifies the errors as correct, then those inaccurate marks will remain stuck in your credit file, no matter how many times you dispute them.
"Because the bureaus spend so little time on investigating errors and usually take the word of the furnisher over the consumer, consumers often need to dispute multiple times, spend countless hours trying to fix mistakes and eventually often have to get legal counsel to get the problems fixed," says DeVonna Joy, an attorney at the Consumer Justice Law Center in Big Bend, Wis.
But before you threaten legal action, here are 10 steps you can take to make sure you submit a dispute that has the best possible chance of getting an error erased.
1. Request a fresh report directly from the credit bureaus. Before you do anything else, order a fresh report from the credit reporting agency, -- or agencies -- that are reporting the inaccurate information. You'll need this report to send in your next dispute and to keep on hand in case you later need to sue.
Order your report directly from the bureaus, not from a third-party reseller, and avoid relying on a report you got from a lender.
"If you get a report from a lender or another business, it may be a merged report," explains Rod Griffin, director of education at the credit reporting agency Experian. Ordering your report from the credit bureau "ensures that we are looking at exactly the same information that you are," says Griffin.
Ordering your most recent report also helps to make sure that the information you're disputing is up to date, he says. "If you're looking at a credit report that's several months old and asking about it, we may be looking at a completely different account. It's been updated or changed or something's happened," says Griffin.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you are entitled to a free copy of each of your reports at least once every 12 months. You may also get a free report if you've been turned down for credit within the last 60 days. You can order a fresh report online at AnnualCreditReport.com, by telephone at 877-322-8228 or by mail. If you've already used up your free report for the year or have a report that's several months old, go ahead and pay to get a new one, say experts. You can expect to pay up to $12, depending on the credit bureau and the state where you live. Some states, such as Colorado, California, Georgia and Maine, allow you to get an additional report for free or at a reduced price.
2. Pore over the report for errors large and small. When you last checked your report and saw there was an error, you may have only noticed major errors, such as a court judgment that doesn't belong to you or a debt that you're sure you repaid. However, look closely for other, smaller mistakes on your report, such as incorrect addresses or a slight misspelling of your name, say experts.
"Those kinds of things can be indicative of mixed files [or] of identity theft," says Joy.
Small mistakes in your identifying information could also cause bad information to get into the reports that lenders pull, which may include more information than what you see on your personal report, says Austin, Texas, consumer lawyer Amy Kleinpeter. "When a consumer asks for a credit report, [the credit bureaus] pull the information from an algorithm," she says, and the matching requirements are fairly stringent.
"But when the car dealer or the lender goes [and asks for a report], they use different algorithms that are wider and pull more information," says Kleinpeter.
As soon as you get your latest report, Joy recommends that you carefully scan it for variations of your name that you don't normally use, unfamiliar addresses, incorrect Social Security numbers or a wrong date of birth.
Also look at the section of your report that lists who has pulled your credit information, she says. If you see a company that you don't recognize or that you did not apply for credit from, ask the credit bureau why it gave them your information. It could be another sign that our file has been mixed up with someone else's credit.
3. Mark up the credit report, highlighting the mistakes. "Photocopy the front page and photocopy the page with an error," says Kleinpeter. Then circle or highlight any error that you see, even if the error seems minor.
If there are multiple errors on your report, put a number next to each error, Kleinpeter adds. That will help you refer to the errors when you write your dispute.
Once you've marked up the report, make multiple copies. You'll need them for your files, as well for your disputes.
4. Write or type your dispute letter yourself. Don't dispute the error online. Sending in a dispute online may be quick. However, consumer lawyers say it's one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
"The online dispute is all about the expediency of the credit bureau," says Cary Flitter, a consumer lawyer and law professor in Philadelphia. Most online dispute forms give you just enough room to state your dispute, he says, but don't give you enough room to back it up. "They want you to just say, 'not mine' or 'bill was paid,' and that doesn't always tell the whole story," says Flitter.
You also want to make sure you can fully explain any part of your case that's complicated or confusing, says DeVonna Joy. "The forms are set up to pigeonhole disputes into certain categories that may not exactly apply," she says.
Online disputes are also not set up to accept additional evidence, such as a copy of a check or of your Social Security card, say experts -- and those pieces of evidence can be important later on if you do need to go to court to prove that a credit reporting agency isn't correcting a legitimate mistake.
In addition, many online dispute forms contain arbitration clauses, which can undercut your consumer rights. "The credit bureaus bury waiver clauses in the click agreement," says Flitter. "By clicking, 'I accept," you're giving up the right to sue them if they do something wrong."
Type up, then mail your dispute instead. That way, you can include as much information and evidence as you need to explain your case. Also, if you do wind up in court, you'll be able to prove to the judge assigned to your case that you gave the credit bureaus enough information to properly investigate your dispute.
5. Separate disputes into multiple letters. If you have more than one error on your report, don't try to dispute all the errors together, says Flitter. Instead, write a dispute letter for each error and mail them separately. "The likelihood of getting something fixed is a lot better if you just do one at a time," he says.
You'll also want to write separate letters to each credit bureau that's reporting the mistakes, says Joy. You do not want to send one big dispute to all three bureaus to save time." The credit bureaus aren't obligated to notify each other of the dispute until at least one of them has confirmed the error is inaccurate.
Keep a separate file for each bureau as well, she adds, so you don't lose track of what you sent to which agency. "The devil is in the details in these cases in terms of straightening things out," she adds, so it's important to keep it organized in case you need it later.
6. Keep it simple. The most effective dispute letters are often the easiest to read, say experts. Don't try to cite legal arguments or use fancy words, says Kleinpeter -- and avoid using form letters you found online.
"A lot of the letters that people put online as samples don't make any sense," she says. People throw in a lot of legalese and fake legal words, which makes reading the letters a chore, says Kleinpeter. "I've had a lot of well-meaning clients, intelligent people use those letters," she says. "And they got nowhere."
Instead, write a brief, pointed dispute letter that politely explains in plain language what the error is and why the information does not belong to you.
"You need to be very clear" about what you're disputing, says Experian's Rod Griffin. "'The account was never mine.' 'The payment was never late.'"
But you also want to make sure that you include enough information to back up your claim, says Flitter. Otherwise, the credit bureaus could later argue that you didn't give them enough information, he says.
Finally, write the letter yourself, says DeVonna Joy. "The dispute must come directly from the consumer to trigger credit bureau obligations to investigate," she explains.
7. Include evidence. Attach whatever evidence you can find, backing up your dispute.
"Include every bit of documentation and every bit of detail available to you," says Leonard Bennett, a consumer lawyer in Newport News, Va. That way, the credit bureau can't say that you didn't give them enough information.
"The big three [credit bureaus] consistently lose or claim to lose consumer correspondence," he adds, so make copies of all your correspondence, including every piece of evidence that you mail.
8. Mail your dispute to the credit bureaus -- and to the data furnisher. If you know which lender, collection agency or other type of data furnisher (the ones giving out your information) is misreporting your credit history, send them the same information that you sent the credit bureau, say experts.
"Doing so at the same time may help resolve those issues more quickly," explains Experian's Rod Griffin.
It also ensures that data furnishers have enough information to investigate your dispute. "That's another reason to do paper disputes because you're going to be caught in the middle," says Flitter. The credit bureaus process your dispute by assigning a category code to the dispute and sending a short summary to the furnisher to investigate the problem. The credit bureaus rarely include the documents you mailed with your dispute and so the furnisher only gets the bare minimum of information, he says.
"Many court cases on this turn on the extent of the information that the credit bureau gives the furnisher," says Flitter. "The credit bureau will say, 'customer claims paid,' but they will never attach a copy of the check. They're just not geared up to do that."
It's also a good idea to send all your correspondence by certified mail, say experts. That way, "If they come back and say, 'Well, we didn't get it,' you've got a little green card that the post office sends back to you showing that they signed for it," says Markus Horner of Sachse, Texas, who spent years contesting errors on his reports. Horner also recommends that you write the certified mail number on each letter so that you can easily match the certified card with the original dispute.
9. Stay organized. "Obtain and keep very careful records. Of everything," says the Consumer Justice Law Center's DeVonna Joy. "Who you talk to if you call, when, what is said, all written communications, all credit reports, all denials for credit ... Throw nothing out," she says.
You never know when you'll need to use them later on. "Once someone is mixed with someone else, either through theft of identity or a credit bureau error, they are potentially always mixed," says Joy.
LoriAnn Peccoro of Paramus, N.J., also recommends creating a "credit binder" to store each transaction and dispute. "I look at this binder like it's my birth certificate," says Peccoro, who spent nearly a year fighting errors on her report. "If you've got it in black and white, you've got it," she adds.
10. Don't accept no for an answer. If you've disputed an error several times and it continues to be verified by the credit bureaus, consult a lawyer experienced in Fair Credit Reporting Act cases. "The best place to find one is at the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates," says Joy. "Click on 'Find an attorney' and check the profiles of the attorneys in your state to see if they handle FCRA cases."
Finally, don't lose patience, says Rahul Sharma of College Station, Texas, who spent six years trying to get multiple errors off his reports. "When you look online, people advise that you can't do anything; there is no hope," says Sharma. However, if you keep pushing for it, you'll eventually get the errors off your reports, he says. "Just don't give up," Sharma adds.