If you’re one of the 25% of Americans with an error on your credit reports, you may be in for a nasty surprise the next time you apply for credit.
The good news is that you have a right to have mistakes removed from your credit reports. Here’s how to assess what went wrong and how to fix it.
Look at all three of your credit reports
You have three different credit reports, one from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You’re entitled to one free credit report from each bureau every year. In addition, if you’re turned down for credit because of something in your credit report, you’re entitled to another copy of the report used in that decision.
There may be some small differences among your reports, because some companies don’t report account activity to all three bureaus. If negative information has popped up on one report, see whether it’s also on the other two.
Make sure it’s really a credit bureau mistake
Negative information on a credit report might surprise you, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. In these cases, try to resolve the problem directly with the creditor.
For instance, say you missed some bills because you moved and forgot one creditor when you were updating your billing address. You don’t realize it until delinquencies show up on your reports. Don’t contact the credit bureaus, talk directly to the creditor. Arrange to pay up and ask if it will rescind the reported delinquencies so they no longer appear on your reports.
Dispute bureau mistakes online or in writing
On the other hand, sometimes a credit bureau does make the error. It may have failed to record a payment or accidentally reported an account twice. If so, gather documentation to prove your case, such as proof of payment, correspondence related to a contested charge and a copy of your credit report with the disputed items highlighted.
Once you’ve gathered documentation to support your claim, reach out to the bureau or bureaus that show the mistaken information. All three bureaus have an online dispute process, and that is often the fastest way to fix a problem.
Here’s where you can begin your online dispute:
You can also send a letter disputing a mistake. Send copies of your documentation to the address on the credit report and keep the originals as backup. You may want to send the letter with a return receipt confirmation to be sure it reaches its destination.
Under most circumstances, the bureaus have to respond to a dispute claim within 30 days. If you’ve heard nothing after a month, check the status of your dispute online or call to find out what’s going on. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, escalate your questions to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Its national website will direct you to the appropriate local branch office where your complaint should be filed.
If credit report errors are holding your credit scores down, you may be paying higher interest rates on loans and credit card balances than you need to. So it’s in your best interest to get inaccurate information removed from your credit reports if you can.
Updated March 22, 2017.