How to fix errors in your credit report

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(MoneyWatch) The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will soon be overseeing roughly 30 credit-reporting firms. One area the new federal watchdog will focus on is coming up with a better system for handling consumer complaints about errors in their credit reports.

Since studies show that most credit bureau reports contain at least one error, it's a good idea to finally create some industry standards for resolving these mistakes. Most credit report errors are in the form of incorrect or missing account information, but in other cases information from other people can be included on your credit report. Even if these errors aren't your fault, they can come back to bite you. One possible impact can be a lower credit score.

Feds to supervise credit reporting for first time

Of course, you won't know if your credit report contains errors until you review it. The first step in ensuring it's mistake-free is to get a copy of your credit report from the three credit bureaus; ExperianTransUnion, and Equifax (Here's where you can get your free annual credit report.)

If you find an error on your credit report, you can file a dispute and request a correction using an online process. But that wouldn't be my first choice. Instead, I recommend sending a letter notifying the credit bureaus of the error and requesting a correction the old-fashioned way -- with "snail-mail." It may take longer, but you'll have legal proof that you sought to correct your credit report.

The Federal Trade Commission also outlines several steps for disputing and fixing mistakes on your report:

  • Write a letter that details the information you think is incorrect, identify each item, explain why you think it is incorrect, and request the error be removed (You can use this letter as a guide for writing your own.)
  • Include copies of documents to back up your claims.
  • Also send a copy of your credit report, with each error circled and numbered.
  • Send your letter and copies of any documents via certified mail ("return receipt requested") so you have proof of delivery and receipt.

To take advantage of the full protection under the law, you should send your requests to both the credit bureaus and the source of the incorrect information, such as a credit card company, cell phone provider, or other merchant.

The credit reporting companies are required to conduct an investigation of the issues you raised in your letter, which could take about 30 days. They must give you a written summary of the results of their inquiry and any actions they plan to take. If changes are made to your credit report as a result of their investigation, the credit reporting companies must send you an updated copy of the report free of charge. This copy does not count toward the annual limit of one free report from each bureau per year.

If such an investigation does not resolve your dispute, you can request that a statement explaining your position regarding the disputed information be included in your credit report files.

My advice: Get a copy of your credit report and review it -- now. If you notice an error when you are applying for a loan or a job, then it is too late. You won't get the error fixed before they see your report, and that error could end up costing you big time.

  • Ray Martin

    View all articles by Ray Martin on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Ray Martin has been a practicing financial advisor since 1986, providing financial guidance and advice to individuals. He has appeared regularly as a contributor on the CBS Early Show, CBS NewsPath, as a columnist on CBS Moneywatch.com and on NBC-TV's morning newscast TODAY. He has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and is the author of two books.

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