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Collections accounts generally stick to your credit reports for seven years from the point the account first went delinquent, even if the account has been paid in full.
But you may want them off sooner than that because unpaid collections can make you look bad to potential creditors. And while newer versions of FICO and VantageScore credit scores ignore paid collections, many lenders still use older formulas that count even paid collections against you.
Here are steps to remove a collections account from your credit report:
Do your homework and gather your evidence.
Dispute the account if there's an error.
Ask for a goodwill deletion if you paid the collections.
Confirm the change you sought was made on your credit reports.
1. Do your homework and gather evidence
Get information on the debt from two places: your own records and your credit reports.
First, gather your records for details on the account in question, including its age and your payment history. If available, you'll want to have a personal banking statement or similar document handy that shows the date of your last payment.
Next, print out your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and highlight the differences when looking for errors. Not all lenders report to all three bureaus, so your reports might not be identical.
The good news: You can get a free credit report every week from each bureau by using AnnualCreditReport.com. In addition, you can check your free credit report at NerdWallet as often as you like, along with a free credit score, both from TransUnion.
Using your credit reports, verify these details:
Account number in question.
Account status (paid, charged off, closed).
The date the debt went delinquent and was never again brought up to date.
Once you have the details straight, you can decide which approach works for you.
2. If a collection is on your report in error, dispute it
You may have a collections account on your credit report that shouldn’t be there. Maybe it’s too old to still be reported, or the collection itself is incorrect. Here's what to do based on where the error originated:
What to do if the credit bureau made an error
Delinquent accounts should fall off your credit report seven years after the date they first became and remained delinquent. But that doesn’t always happen. For debts that linger longer than they should, file a dispute with any credit bureau that still lists the debt.
If a credit bureau has made a mistake on your report — if you don’t recognize the account or a paid account shows as unpaid, for example — gather documentation supporting your case. Then, file a dispute by using the credit bureau's online process, by phone or by mail. The bureau has 30 days to respond.
It's free to dispute errors on your credit report with the bureaus, and it won't harm your score. You can dispute online, by phone, or by mail.
What to do if the debt collector made an error
If you think the error is on the part of the debt collector, not the credit bureau, ask the collector to validate the debt to make sure it’s yours. A debt validation letter should include information like the amount owed and the creditor that is seeking payment, among other things.
Note that you have 30 days from the date the collector first contacted you to dispute the validity of the debt. If the collector can’t validate, the collection should come off your reports.
3. If you already paid the debt: Ask for a goodwill deletion
You can ask the creditor — either the original creditor or a debt collector — for what’s called a “goodwill deletion.”
Write the collector a letter explaining your circumstances and why you would like the debt removed, such as if you’re about to apply for a mortgage. There’s no guarantee your request will be accepted, but there’s no harm in asking. A record of on-time payments since the debt was paid will help your case.
Your credit record will still show the late payments leading up to the collection action, but removing the collection itself takes away a source of score damage.
Sample letter requesting a goodwill deletion
Account Number: [your account number]
To Whom It May Concern:
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I’m writing because I noticed that my most recent credit report contains [a late payment/payments] reported on [date/dates] for my [name of account] account.
I want you to know that I understand my financial obligations, and if it weren’t for [circumstance that caused you to miss a payment], I’d have an excellent repayment record. I made a mistake in falling behind, but since then, [description of how your circumstances have changed or how you’ve improved your money management]. Since then, I’ve had a spotless record of on-time payments.
I’m planning to apply for [a mortgage/auto loan/etc.], and it’s come to my attention that the missed payment on my record could hurt my ability to qualify. I truly believe that it doesn’t reflect my creditworthiness and commitment to repaying my debts. It would help me immensely if you could give me a second chance and make a goodwill adjustment to remove the late [payment/payments] on [date/dates].
Thank you for your consideration, and I hope you’ll approve my request.
4. Check your credit reports after 30 days to make sure the change was made
Whether you're disputing an error with the credit bureau or a creditor or you're trying to get a paid debt removed earlier than the typical 7-year period, there is a 30-day window in which your claim must be addressed. Even if all goes well during the dispute process, it's a good idea to pull your credit reports after 30 days to make sure that the change was made.