It’s natural to want a quick fix for your credit problems, but be wary of any practice that seems deceptive — even if it could work in your favor.
In September 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a lawsuit against Prime Marketing Holdings, a credit repair firm based in Van Nuys, Calif. In its complaint, the CFPB alleged the company charged customers advance fees “totaling hundreds of dollars” and misled customers about their ability to remove negative items from their credit reports.
The case is still active, but it’s just one example of the proliferation of credit repair abuse in the U.S. And it gives rise to the question: How do I know if a credit repair company is legitimate or just another scam?
We’ve put together a litmus test of seven signs you could be working with a shady credit repair company.
1. They ask you to pay before they start working.
One of the biggest red flags in the credit repair business is requiring an upfront fee before any services are rendered. Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA), credit repair companies can’t charge advance fees before rendering services.
In some cases, advance fees can be only a couple of hundred dollars. But some companies have been found to ask for thousands of dollars upfront. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission sued Doug and Julie Parker, owners of a Texas-based credit repair firm called RMCN Credit Services, Inc. The FTC claimed the couple charged customers a staggering $2,000 retainer fee before they completed any work. In the end, the Parkers were fined $400,000 by the federal watchdog.
2. They try to give you a new “credit identity.”
Another dodgy credit repair practice is when a company tries to convince clients to create a “new credit identity.” To establish this identity, the firm may offer to issue the client a nine-digit “credit profile number” or even prompt them to apply for an employer identification number with the IRS. With the new number in place, the firm could them encourage the client to apply for new credit and stop using their real Social Security number.
Don’t be fooled — this practice is completely illegal. An EIN is only used to identify businesses, and it is not a substitute for a Social Security number. Additionally, that credit profile number could easily be someone else’s stolen Social Security number. “These companies may be selling stolen Social Security numbers, often those taken from children,” the FTC warns. If you fall for this trap, you are essentially committing identity theft.
3. They ask you to lie on credit applications.
Some credit repair organizations may also ask you to lie on credit applications in order to qualify for more credit. For example, they may ask you to report more income than you earn. It’s illegal to make false statements on credit applications.
4. They dispute correct information on your credit report.
Yet another way credit repair companies try to manipulate the system is by misinforming consumers about the rules surrounding credit reports. They may tell consumers that they can fight every single item on their credit report — even if the item is accurate.
This is not true. If there is a negative item on your credit report that you feel is an error, you absolutely can fight to have it removed. But if it’s negative because you were, indeed, late on your bill, or did, in fact, file for bankruptcy, you cannot file to have it removed by claiming it is inaccurate.
5. They promise to get you a perfect credit score.
When a company promises they can improve your credit score or even get your score up to a specific number, don’t believe their hype.
In 2015, the FTC filed suit against a company called FTC Credit Solutions for making exactly these types of claims. The company's representatives told customers they would get their credit score into the 700s and promised any negative credit report information could be removed. On top of that, they also charged advance fees before rendering any services. The case was settled very quickly to the tune of a $2.4 million penalty against the defendants.
6. They claim they are affiliated with a government agency.
Some repair firms fraudulently claim they are affiliated with the FTC or another government agency. If you are filing bankruptcy, it is true that you’ll be required to get some kind of credit counseling. But that counseling must be from a government-approved organization. There’s a full list of approved credit counseling firms on the U.S. Trustee Program website. If you’re thinking of working with a firm that isn’t on that list, you might want to reconsider.
7. They don’t want you to contact the credit bureaus on your own.
Don’t believe a company that tells you they are the only way to contact the credit bureaus. By law, any consumer can contact credit bureaus directly without a third party. You also have the right to access your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once per year for free. If you’ve been rejected for anything for credit-related reasons, you have 60 days to request a free copy of your report. This enables you to keep potential creditors honest.
If a company ever tells you that you are not allowed to contact the credit bureaus on your own, walk away — fast.
How to Repair Your Credit All by Yourself
The MagnifyMoney team highly recommends taking simple steps to improve your credit on your own, without the risk of working with a shady credit repair firm.
Start by getting a copy of your free credit report from each of the credit bureaus. The simplest way to do this is by requesting copies at AnnualCreditReport.com, which is a government-sponsored website.
From there, look over your information to make sure everything is accurate. If there are late payments listed, did you actually pay late? Does it show closed accounts accurately? Do you recognize all of the accounts?
Sometimes reports do have errors. If you find one, consider the fact that you may be a victim of identity theft and take appropriate steps as necessary.
If you’re instead the victim of an honest mistake, contact the credit bureaus directly. You will have to do so online and via written letter. You will also have to contact the entity that incorrectly reported the line item. You can get a sample letter here.
Be sure to keep copies of all of your paperwork and follow up on your dispute. The credit bureaus have 30 days to investigate. If all turns out well, they will remove the item, which could result in a higher credit score.
If they do not find in your favor, you can request that a copy of the dispute be attached to your credit report moving forward, but you will have to pay a fee to do so. While this will not improve your credit score, it could potentially alert future creditors to the fact that you do not agree with the negative item.
There are also rare cases where you can attempt to get an accurate item removed from your credit report. If you were not aware of a debt, but you quickly paid it off once you were properly notified, the creditor may be willing to remove the item from your report. This kindness may also be extended if you were experiencing a temporary illness or life emergency. These removals are rare, but are most often rewarded when you are an otherwise responsible steward of your debts.
To make your case to your creditor, you will need to write them a letter of goodwill. In it, explain that you understand why the item is on your report, but also explain why you temporarily were unable to fulfill your obligation. Stress the fact that you are an otherwise responsible borrower, and point out specific instances in your business relationship where this has proven to be true.
It’s also a good idea to appeal to their human side. Explain what the removal of the debt would mean for you. Is there a major milestone coming up, such as a job interview or a mortgage application? Thank them sincerely for the time they’re taking to review your case and cross your fingers. Goodwill letters do not have a high success rate, but you will have a zero percent success rate if you don’t try.
Finding Legitimate Solutions
Even though there are a lot of scammers out there, it’s good to remember that there are legitimate credit repair organizations, too. However, before you pay a company to help you repair your credit, read our guide on repairing your credit on your own and our guide on credit counseling. At the very least, properly vet a credit repair firm before you sign up for their services — and watch out for the warning signs we covered before.
Another potentially safer way to go about credit repair is by working with a not-for-profit credit counselor. These organizations have a lower rate of deceptive practices and can work with you in a more holistic manner to resolve not just your credit report woes but also your current debt situation.