Inaccuracies in your credit history can hurt your credit score. Learn what to do and what to expect if you encounter a credit report error.
In theory, a credit report should contain every statistic that pertains to an individual’s finances, along with basic identity information. In the U.S., each of the three independent credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax) compiles credit reports based on information supplied by banks, credit unions, credit card companies and other businesses that sell goods or services through credit accounts. Credit bureaus also get credit information from collection agencies and public records pertaining to court judgments on financial issues (divorce, bankruptcy, liens, etc.).
Mistakes can creep into credit reports. When this happens, the credit scores derived from credit report details can be adversely affected. If your credit scores drop, this may hurt your chances of qualifying for a low-interest loan and other financial benefits. That’s why financial advisors recommend keeping track of your credit scores and checking your credit reports.
Credit scores are easy to check using monitoring services like PrivacyGuard. A useful feature of this service is an alert setting that automatically contacts you of certain credit-related activity that has been added to your credit report.
What causes credit report errors?
Some credit report errors are caused by reporting mistakes on the part of a bank, service provider or creditor. For example, an incorrect social security number may have been given in association with a new credit account. In other cases, the consumer is responsible. It may be an innocent mistake for an individual to open bank or credit accounts in two names. But William Smith’s credit activity may not be recorded on the same credit report that holds Bill Smith’s information, even if they are the same person.
Some credit report errors are simply small oversights, but they can manage to hurt your credit score anyway. For example, if you make a final payment that falls short of the total payment due by just a small amount (like a $3.75 interest charge), the creditor could potentially report the account as overdue. Even a small accounting error like this has the potential to hurt your credit score, because it can show up on your credit report as an overdue payment.
Identity theft is another cause of credit report errors that deserves mention. If someone gains access to your social security number, address and other personal information, he or she can open an account or multiple accounts in your name, resulting in false information being added to your credit report. The credit problem is exacerbated if the thief runs up expenses in your name. If your credit scores change unexpectedly –without significant financial or credit activity on your part—this can be an indication of identity theft.
How can credit report errors be corrected?
It’s important to correct errors on a credit report, but unfortunately it’s not easy. The Fair Credit Reporting Act makes it a legal requirement for credit bureaus (sometimes referred to as credit agencies, credit reporting agencies or CRAs) to investigate credit report mistakes when requested to do so by a consumer. Despite this legislation, such investigations rarely happen in a timely fashion.
So how can a consumer speed up the process of correcting a credit report mistake?
Of course, the first step is to order a copy of the credit report (or reports) that you suspect of being inaccurate. You are legally entitled to see a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three major CRAs. The next thing to do is to check for identity errors, the easiest ones to find. On a photocopy of your report, highlight a name variation, unknown address, incorrect social security number or other error when you find it. Follow this work with a thorough check of all your bank and credit accounts. Again, it’s important to highlight a mistake clearly. In some cases, a mistake will be basic enough to explain in the margin. In other cases, you’ll need to write a longer explanation on a separate document, and include documents that back up your claim.
Experts point out that you may get faster results if you go directly to the business or institution that is the source of the error. Since banks make regular reports to credit bureaus, it’s best to approach the bank if that’s where the wrong information originated. The same goes for a collection agency, landlord, cell phone service or utility company that provided inaccurate information.
Snail mail beats email when dealing with CRAs
Emailing a CRA may seem like the speediest way to get a CRA to correct credit report errors, but it’s not the approach most personal finance experts recommend. Instead, you’re more likely to get resolution by sending a registered letter containing a copy of your redlined credit report, along with detailed explanations, support documentation and a request for action.
The good news about working with a CRA to correct credit report inaccuracies is that there are new and powerful incentives for credit bureaus to be more responsive to consumers.