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Updated on Friday, December 7, 2018
Your credit reports are maintained by each of the three national credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These important documents list 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.
This information makes up your three-digit credit score, the number lenders use to determine if they’ll lend you money or extend you credit. A high 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. In fact, a report by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 found that 26% of participants in a study found at least one potential error on their credit reports. That same study found that 5.2% of the participants who corrected these mistakes saw their credit scores increase enough so that they would be more likely to nab a lower interest rate on a loan.
Fortunately, it is easier today to dispute and correct a mistake on your credit reports. And doing so could help you improve your credit score.
How to dispute errors in your credit report
It’s easier to dispute items on your credit report today, because you can open an inquiry with each credit bureau online.
When you find an error on your credit report, you’ll work directly with the bureau that issued the report. 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 — using the information listed earlier in this story — and click on the appropriate button to start a new dispute. Doing this will bring up your credit report with an option 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 2017, attach the credit card statement from that month showing that you paid your bill on time. 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.
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 19022.
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 check your credit report for errors
The first step to checking your credit reports is to order your free copies. You can order one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year from AnnualCreditReport.com. Be sure to only order your reports from this site. Other sites offering free credit reports might try to sign you up for credit-monitoring services that you might not need.
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 errors in credit reports
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.
If you spot any of these errors, make sure to correct them. All of them could impact your credit score.