According to the Federal Trade Commission between 10 and 21 percent of consumers have errors on their credit reports.
Some of those errors are minor and don’t really have any measureable impact on your ability to function.
However, some of those errors are significant enough to cost you a loan, a great interest rate, a job, or competitively priced insurance.
So what do you do if you suspect that you have errors on your credit reports?
The good news is this…the law and the credit bureaus are on your side. I know that might sound crazy to read but it’s 100% true.
The credit bureaus have no interest in having erroneous information about you in their databases.
Incorrect credit reports are less valuable and the process of correcting a credit report is a cost they’d rather not incur.
Plus, the FTC’s study on credit file accuracy suggested that tens of millions of credit reports contain errors and that’s not good for your reputation.
Where Do I Start?
The first step is one that most consumers simply are unwilling to take. You have to get copies of your three credit reports via www.annualcreditreport.com.
Unfortunately about 4% of free credit reports are claimed every year, which means 96% of them are not.
If you don’t claim your credit reports you won’t know if something is incorrect and won’t know that you need to file a formal dispute with the credit reporting agencies.
This has always been mind boggling to me…something as important as your credit reports and so few reports are claimed year over year.
And in Georgia we get unlimited free credit reports because of state law!!
What’s our excuse?
Now that you’ve pulled your three credit reports (from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) you need to go through each item on the report to determine whether or not it’s correct.
That won’t take too long because you’re likely very familiar with your loans, credit cards and liabilities.
If you find something that you believe is incorrect…WAIT!
It might not actually be incorrect.
Credit reporting is not real time, which means the balances on your accounts are likely from the prior month’s statement. And, just because you don’t recognize an account doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.
For example, my Home Depot credit report is reported as a Citibank credit card because that’s who issues the Home Depot credit card. At first glance it might seem to be incorrect, but it isn’t.
Point being, don’t waste time challenging something that’s actually correct.
If you have found something that is actually incorrect then it’s time to file a dispute with the credit reporting agencies.
You can do this online, via U.S. snail mail, or on the phone if you’re lucky enough to reach someone.
This is free so you won’t have to pay the credit bureaus for filing the dispute.
Once you’ve filed a credit report dispute the credit reporting agencies must:
A) show it on your credit report as being in dispute
B) contact the source of the information (normally a lender or a collection agency) and ask them to confirm the validity of the information.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that the credit bureaus didn’t place those accounts on your credit reports.
They were placed there by “data furnishers”, which are those lenders and collection agencies. Too many people place too much blame on the credit bureaus for incorrect credit reports.
It’s a garbage in-garbage out system and if a lender reports something incorrect then they’re the ones who have to correct it.
How Long Is This Going To Take?
You’ve probably heard or read that it’s going to take 30 days for the credit bureaus to complete a credit file investigation.
That’s true and false at the same time.
The law allows the credit bureaus 30 days to complete their investigation. But, the law also allows them an additional 15 days if you send supplemental information during the first 30 days.
So, the correct answer is 30 to 45 days.
The most important step is getting copies of your credit reports. If you don’t notify the credit bureaus of a potential error they have no obligation to investigate or correct the item.
They assume everything sent to them is correct and unless you raise your hand and challenge the validity of credit entries then they’re not going to correct them.
John Ulzheimer is the President of Consumer Education at SmartCredit.com, the credit blogger for Mint.com, and a contributor for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. He is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft. Formerly of FICO, Equifax and Credit.com, John is the only recognized credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. The opinions expressed in his articles are his and not of Mint.com or Intuit. Follow John on Twitter.