Credit report mistakes are like mosquitos. It’s hard to tell how many there are and, in many cases, they’re nothing more than an annoyance.
But, in both cases, if they bite, move quickly before things get nasty.
“If there's an error that's significant enough to reduce your credit score, you want to fix this as soon as possible,” said Beverly Harzog, consumer credit expert and author of “The Debt Escape Plan.”
Studies of credit reports have variously characterized mistakes as rampant to almost nonexistent. A report by the Federal Trade Commission in 2013 found one in four consumers discovered mistakes on their credit reports that could affect their credit scores.
“These are eye-opening numbers for American consumers,” said Howard Shelanski, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics. “The results of this … study make it clear that consumers should check their credit reports regularly. If they don’t, they are potentially putting their pocketbooks at risk.”
Minor vs. serious
The most frequent credit report mistakes are harmless, such as an incorrect spelling of a consumer’s name or a misplaced digit on a street address. Ironically, some mistakes are advantageous, such as a missed payment that goes unreported.
But a misreported late or missed payment on a credit card, mortgage or other form of credit that was actually paid on time is problematic. Another harmful error is when a consumer directs an account be shut down, but it is reported as closed by the lender — a red flag that signals a consumer’s inability to meet a financial obligation.
If a mistake is serious and remains uncorrected, consumers may have a harder time obtaining credit, such as a mortgage or credit card. Even if credit is available, the offer may come with a higher interest rate than that paid by consumers with better credit scores. Renting an apartment or home can become a greater challenge, as landlords may be wary of renters who appear to have credit issues.
“It gets particularly dicey when there’s a mistake involving a collection agency of some sort,” said Barry Paperno, a credit journalist and a former credit industry employee.
The first rule of thumb to safeguarding your credit is to review your credit report on a regular basis from all three major credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.)
“You should never have to pay a dime” to access your credit report, said credit expert John Ulzheimer, who estimated there are currently more than 20 sources for free credit reports. One commonly recommended website for free credit reports is AnnualCreditReport.com.
While an annual review is adequate (consumers can access a free report from the three reporting bureaus once every year), Harzog recommended spreading the process out.
“I suggest requesting a report from each bureau once every four months instead of getting them all at once. This approach allows you to monitor your credit over the course of a year,” she said. “This isn't a foolproof method, but it improves your chance of catching mistakes and identity theft in an early stage.”
“However often you check, it’s always smart to stay as engaged as possible,” added Ulzheimer.
What to do
Should you spot any mistakes, write a letter to the credit agency reporting the mistake. While online filing of complaints is also available, a letter can best document a paper trail. (A helpful prototype of a letter of complaint is available here.)
“It's best to send a certified letter that requires a signature so you have proof of the date it was received,” said Harzog.
Include documentation with which to make a compelling case that your report contains a mistake. In the case of a mistakenly spelled name or address, something as simple as a utility bill can offer adequate evidence, Paperno noted. Copies of canceled checks can also prove useful in disputing allegedly late or missed payments, as can any relevant correspondence.
And, experts said, stick with one mistake per claim — filing a claim alleging multiple errors can be confusing and, in the end, less successful.
Filing a formal complaint kick-starts a legally mandated process. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, credit reporting agencies are required by law to thoroughly investigate a credit report dispute. In most cases, allow for 30 days to hear back regarding any decision.
If the credit agency agrees a mistake has been made, check subsequent reports to make certain the misinformation is corrected. If they insist that no mistake occurred, consumers have the option of filing another claim. If that’s the case, dig up additional evidence that may shed new light on the dispute.
Another alternative is to contact the organization that originally reported the purported problem, such as a bank or credit card company. Include as much supportive documentation as possible and request that all credit reporting agencies be notified of the correction.
To further your chances of success, Uzheimer recommended filing a concurrent report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the federal agency charged with financial-related consumer issues. That, he said, can offer added leverage for consumers hoping for attention and a speedy resolution.
“It’s almost like bringing your big brother to a fight,” he said.
If things still remain unresolved, you can file complaints against a credit reporting agency (the Federal Trade Commission’s online form is at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov) or the creditor (the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website is at www.consumerfinance.gov.)
Above all, said experts, it pays to make credit report mistakes an ongoing focus of attention, no matter if the misinformation is damaging or innocently inaccurate.
“If my credit report is the only one with a mistake, that’s all that really matters,” said Ulzheimer.