Credit report errors occur more than you might think. In a 2021 Consumer Reports investigation, 34% of consumers found at least one mistake in their credit report.
To be fair, the most common type of errors involve personal information, such as incorrect addresses, which have no impact on the consumer’s credit score. But 11% of consumers found account information errors, and the most common type was accounts they didn’t recognize. With that in mind, here’s how to determine if there are errors on your credit report, and what to do if you find one.
Read your credit reports (all of them)
The first step in fixing errors on your credit report is to determine if you have any. And the only way to do that is to read through your credit reports and check for inaccurate information.
Notice that the word “reports” is pluralized in that last sentence. You actually have three credit reports, as there are three major credit reporting agencies that each maintain their own credit reporting files — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. And while the information should theoretically be about the same on all three, the reality is that it’s not uncommon for incorrect information to appear on one but not the others.
There are plenty of places to get your credit report, and while getting access to your FICO® Scores can come at a price, under no circumstances should you pay to see your credit reports. Under federal law, you are entitled to a free copy of all of your credit reports, and the official place to get them is at AnnualCreditReport.com, which was set up as a collaboration by the credit bureaus themselves. And despite what the web address implies, you can get free copies of your credit reports as frequently as once a week if you wanted (it used to be annual, but the credit bureaus recently decided to permanently extend a COVID-19-era provision that made it more frequent).
The key point is that it’s important to download and read all three reports, and you shouldn’t pay for the privilege.
What to do when you find an error
If you find an error on one or more of your credit reports, you have the right to dispute the mistake. You do this directly with the credit bureaus, and to be perfectly clear, you have to dispute an error with each credit bureau whose report it appears on.
All three credit bureaus have slightly different dispute processes (you can see all of the important links and addresses on the FTC’s website), but here’s the general process:
- You’ll write a dispute letter that includes your name and address, a detailed description of the inaccurate information and why it shouldn’t be there.
- Include copies of documents that back up your story. For example, if an account is being reported as an unpaid collection on a credit card account and you have a receipt showing you paid it, include a copy.
- Include a copy of your credit report, with the inaccurate information clearly labeled or circled.
- Send the letter by certified mail and get a return receipt.
Each of the credit bureaus has an online dispute process as well (links are on the FTC site mentioned earlier). And it’s essentially an online equivalent of these same steps.
After you submit your dispute, the credit bureau has 30 days to investigate it and decide whether your claim has merit. During this time, the credit bureau will send your dispute and documentation to the creditor that reported it, and if it confirms that the information shouldn’t be on your credit report, it is required to notify all three credit bureaus to have it removed. And if the creditor doesn’t respond within the 30-day timeframe, it will result in the disputed information being removed.
Only dispute inaccurate information
As a final thought, it’s worth emphasizing that this process should only be used to dispute incorrect information — not to try to get accurate negative information removed.
In fact, many of the companies that promise to “fix your credit now” or some variation of that claim use this exact technique. And they are often successful in the short term, as the creditors often take longer to respond than the limit mentioned earlier. However, the negative information is usually verified eventually (after all, creditors want to get paid), and you’ll be left in the same situation. When it comes to credit repair services, buyer beware.