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Updated on Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Imagine for a moment how you would feel after doing all the hard work of saving for a down payment, researching and putting an offer on a new home, only to be turned down by a mortgage lender due to an error on your credit report that you weren’t responsible for and didn’t know about.
It happens more often than you think. With all the information gathered by the big three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), including your name (and variations thereof), Social Security Number, date of birth, public records, plus credit account information from current and past loans and credit cards, errors are bound to happen.
That’s why it’s important to review your credit reports at least once a year (through annualcreditreport.com), and most certainly before you seek a new loan or line of credit. And if you do find legitimate errors, knowing how to get them fixed can help alleviate future problems down the road.
How to check your credit report for errors
Your credit reports are maintained by each of the three national credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
The information they contain is sold to lenders, employers, insurers and other businesses that review consumer creditworthiness. They show how much money you owe on your credit cards and the balances on any auto, student or mortgage loans you might carry. They also list any financial mistakes you’ve made in the recent past, — everything from missed and late credit card payments to bankruptcy declarations and foreclosures.
The information contained in your credit reports is fed into an algorithm that makes up your three-digit credit score, the number lenders use to determine if they’ll lend you money and at what interest rate. A higher score means you’re more likely to qualify for the best credit cards and loans at lower interest rates.
That’s why it’s so important to make sure that the information on your credit reports is accurate. A single mistake on these reports could send your credit score tumbling — and errors aren’t as uncommon as you might think, such as name mix-ups and transposed numbers on your SSN.
A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in four consumers found a credit report error that could have affected their credit scores. That same study also revealed that more than one in 10 consumers who corrected these mistakes saw a change to their credit scores.
Fortunately, it isn’t hard to dispute and correct a mistake on your credit reports. And doing so could help you improve your credit score, but know that only legitimate errors can be corrected. That means you generally can’t remove a late payment you made, but you can dispute things like an account you never opened.
But once you get your reports, how do you check them for errors? The key is to figure how credit reports are organized and what information they contain.
Your credit reports start with a list of personal information, including items such as:
- Your full name
- Current and recent addresses
- Telephone number
- Social Security number
- Date of birth
- Spouse’s name
- Current and recent employers
Reports also contain a section for three types of public records: bankruptcies, tax liens and civil judgments. (Credit reports won’t list arrests, misdemeanors or other non-financial records.)
Maybe you failed to pay a tax bill. Your credit report would list the amount of the unpaid taxes and the filing date of a tax lien against you. If you’ve recently declared bankruptcy, your report will list the type of bankruptcy you’ve filed, the filing date of your bankruptcy and the court in which you filed.
You don’t want public records listed on your reports; these will cause your credit score to tumble. Fortunately, these records don’t stay on your reports forever: foreclosures and Chapter 13 bankruptcies fall off your credit report seven years after their filing dates, while Chapter 7 bankruptcies disappear from your report after 10 years.
Another important part of your credit reports is the accounts section. This section lists your credit card accounts and balances, and the balances of installment loans like auto and mortgage loans. Your report will list these accounts as either open, negative or closed.
For instance, your credit reports will list a mortgage loan that you are still paying off as open, including the loan’s current balance, the date you took out the loan and the lender behind the loan. Reports will also list whether you have any late or missed payments on this loan and will list whether the loan is open — meaning you are still paying it off; closed — you’ve finishing paying off the mortgage; or in foreclosure.
This section will list open credit card accounts, too, listing your current balance, the highest your balance has ever been and whether you are late on your payments.
If you are interested in a sample credit report, credit bureau Experian has a good example here.
Common credit report errors
Certain errors are more likely to pop up in credit reports. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns consumers to look for:
- Errors made in your personal information, including reports that list your name incorrectly or contain an incorrect address or phone number.
- Closed credit card accounts that are still listed as open.
- Credit card or installment loan payments reported as late, even if you paid them on time.
- Debt that is listed on your report more than once, possibly with different names for each listing.
- Reports might say you owe more on your credit cards than you actually do.
- Reports might list credit limits on your accounts that are too low.
- Accounts that aren’t yours that may have been opened fraudulently.
If you spot any of these errors, make sure to correct them. All of them could impact your credit score.
Where to dispute credit report errors
You can report credit report errors online — however, we recommend doing it both in writing and online. If you do not like the outcome of the dispute, a paper trail will be helpful if you want to continue pressing for a change in your credit report. Plus, a written letter, sent by certified mail, can be more effective.
You can dispute with TransUnion at dispute.transunion.com, or contact the bureau by phone at 1-800-916-8800. You can also dispute information on your TransUnion report in writing at TransUnion, LLC, Consumer Dispute Center, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016.
You can dispute online with Equifax online at equifax.com/personal/disputes/. If you’d prefer to dispute in writing, you can send a letter to Equifax Information Services LLC, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374-0256. You can also call Equifax at 1-866-349-5191.
You can dispute online with Experian at www.experian.com/disputes/. You can dispute in writing at P.O. Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013.
How to file a credit report dispute
You might have a mistake on your TransUnion credit report while your reports from Experian and Equifax are error-free. In this case, you’d start an online dispute with TransUnion.
Log onto the bureau’s dispute resolution center — by visiting that credit bureau’s website — and click on the appropriate button to start a new dispute. You may be asked to set up an account with the bureau first. Doing this will bring up a list of options to dispute each piece of information on the report. Once you locate the incorrect information, whether it is a credit account still listed as open even though you’ve closed it or a late payment that you believe is inaccurate, click on the “dispute” option for that item.
You will then have the option to select a reason for your dispute. If you’ve never paid your auto loan late, but Experian reports that you have, you’d be able to explain using a dropdown box that you never paid that bill late.
Once you’ve selected all the items you want to dispute, you’ll be given the option to upload documents that help prove there is a mistake in your report. Take advantage of this: the more information you can provide, the better your chances of winning your dispute. If Equifax lists a late credit card payment from April 2020, attach any documentation that shows you paid your bill on time, such as a bank statement that shows when the payment was made. If TransUnion lists an auto loan as being open even though you’ve paid it off, upload your title paperwork showing that you own the car free and clear.
After you submit your online dispute, the credit bureau will send you alerts by email confirming that an investigation has been launched. The bureau will also send you emails every time there is new information about your dispute and when the investigation has been concluded.
You can also write a letter to the credit bureau if you’d prefer that method to opening a dispute online. Again, you can contact the bureaus using the information listed earlier in this story.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, your letter should include your complete name and address and should clearly identify each item in your report that is incorrect. Include the reasons why an item is incorrect and request that the offending item be removed or corrected.
The commission recommends sending a copy of your credit report with the incorrect items circled or highlighted. You should send this letter by certified mail, with a return receipt requested. This way, you can be certain that the credit bureau will have received your letter.
The Federal Trade Commission also recommends that you contact the institution that provided the credit bureau with the incorrect information. If the bureau reports a missed payment from your mortgage lender and you are disputing this, contact your mortgage lender, too, to inquire about the mistake.
Sample dispute letters for credit bureaus and creditors
Want to send a dispute letter to one of the three credit bureaus? Here is a sample dispute letter provided by the Federal Trade Commission. Just fill in the blanks when you send it.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you also send a dispute letter to the company — bank, lender or credit card provider, usually — that send the information you think is incorrect.
Here is a sample letter, provided by the FTC, for that step in the process:
What happens after you submit a dispute
The credit bureaus are required to investigate your dispute and will usually do so within 30 days, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Once you submit your dispute, either online or by writing, the bureau will forward your information to whatever organization provided it with the information in dispute. If you are disputing a late payment by one of your credit card providers, the credit bureau will send your information to that provider.
If the company does find that the information you are disputing is incorrect, it must then notify all three credit bureaus so that they can correct the information in your reports.
Once the investigation concludes, the credit bureau must provide you the results in writing, along with a free copy of your credit report if the dispute ended with a change. The bureau will also send you a written notice that contains the name, address and phone number of the company that provided the incorrect information.