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How Do I Dispute a Negative Item on My Credit Report?

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In a Nutshell

In this article, we’ll discuss the common errors people find in their credit histories along with step-by-step instructions on how to dispute inaccurate items on your credit reports. We’ll also discuss how much time the credit bureaus have under the FCRA to investigate disputed items and what to do if you don't agree with the investigation results.

Written by Attorney John Coble.  
Updated August 12, 2021


It's a good idea to check your credit report for inaccuracies at least once A year. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires the credit bureaus to give you one free credit report annually from each of three major credit bureaus. You should review your report for all three.

In this article, we’ll discuss the common errors people find in their credit histories along with step-by-step instructions on how to dispute inaccurate items on your credit reports. We’ll also discuss how much time the credit bureaus have under the FCRA to investigate disputed items and what to do if you don't agree with the investigation results.

Common Errors To Look For

There are many types of errors you should look for on your credit report. Some have to do with your personal information. For example, double-check that your name, address, phone number, and date of birth are all correct. Other errors have to do with the information of your credit accounts. The more common account errors are:

  • An account you've never heard of

  • A missed or late payment you know you made on time 

  • Being misreported as an account owner when you're an authorized user

  • Closed accounts reported as open

  • Inaccurate dates on an account, such as the date of the last payment and the date the account was opened 

  • Negative items staying on your credit report longer than allowed

  • The same debt listed more than once

  • Negative information that was disputed and removed but has come back

  • Incorrect account balance or incorrect credit limit

If you don’t recognize an account, it may still be legitimate. These accounts could be debts that were sold to a debt buyer. Or the creditor may have been acquired by another company. Banks that issue credit cards are frequently bought by other banks. But you’ll want to do some digging if you don’t recognize an account because it could also be a sign of identity theft or a mixed report.

Mixed Credit Reports

A mixed credit report is when the credit bureau puts another consumer's information on your credit report. If you see accounts that aren't yours but have a similar name, this could also be a sign of a mixed report. This can happen if the credit bureaus aren't careful when identifying the owner of an account through information like their Social Security number, full legal name, and date of birth. If the credit agencies don’t ensure an exact match of this identifying information, you may end up with someone else’s information on your credit report.

If you see incorrect information on your report, it's important to dispute the item. Mixed reports can cause a bad credit score. Removing negative notations that should be on another person's account can dramatically improve your credit.

Identity Theft

If you don’t recognize accounts on your credit report, you may be a victim of identity theft. This is the worst possible type of error. If you see signs of identity theft, it's imperative that you report it and start to repair it as soon as possible. The faster you start working on the problem, the less damage will be done to your credit and the quicker the issue will be resolved.

Errors and Your Credit Score

Mixed reports and identity theft are two of the worst issues you can have with your credit report. but incorrect missed payments, account balances, and credit limits can also have a devastating effect. The good news is that it’s possible to dispute these errors, and fixing inaccurate information can dramatically improve your credit report. 

Understanding how your credit score is calculated will help you understand why missed and late payments hurt people's credit and why your account balances and credit limits are important. Your payment history and credit utilization ratio are two of the most important factors of your credit score. Your credit utilization ratio is the total of all your account balances divided by the total credit limit on all your accounts. If your account balances are overstated or your credit limits are understated, it will hurt your credit score. This is because your credit utilization ratio will be higher than it really is.

If you notice any errors on your credit report, you need to file a credit dispute letter with the credit bureau that is reporting the error. 

Content of the Dispute Letter

You're now ready to do your own credit repair by writing a credit dispute letter. Make sure you include your complete name, address, and phone number. If you have the credit report confirmation number for the report you're contesting, include that too. If not, the credit bureaus should still be able to match the report. Then list the account number and type of error for each account you're disputing. Include a clear request that the information is removed or corrected in your letter. This may seem obvious, but it’s an important step.

Explain why you believe the account is inaccurate, and attach any documentation you have as evidence. If you’re disputing a late payment, this documentation might be a bank statement showing the date a payment cleared your bank account. If you do provide a bank statement, make sure to highlight the line showing when the payment cleared.

You should attach a few items along with the dispute letter. Include the page of your credit report where the erroneous item is and highlight the item you're disputing. To prove your identity, it’s also a good idea to include a scanned copy of your government-issued picture ID (most often your driver's license) and your Social Security number. Though these are optional, providing them can speed things up because the credit bureaus want to verify your identity.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides good information on credit report dispute letters. It also provides links to where you can download the dispute forms used by Equifax and TransUnion. 

Sending the Dispute

A credit dispute letter is the best credit repair method. When going through the dispute process, you need a good paper trail. This can be used as evidence if you need to file a lawsuit under the FCRA. 

This is why it’s not a good idea to file a dispute by phone. Credit bureaus will also let you dispute an item on your credit report online. This is not a good idea either as you may inadvertently give up some legal rights. In the past, consumers have unknowingly agreed to the website’s terms and conditions, which bound them to arbitration agreements. These people were then unable to file a lawsuit in court if the credit bureau failed to remove an erroneous item. If there’s a possibility of a lawsuit, the credit bureaus are more likely to comply with all the requirements of the FCRA.

For these reasons, disputing erroneous items on your credit report with a credit dispute letter is the best option. To continue the paper trail, send the letter via certified mail with a return receipt. The certified mail will serve as evidence of the start of the 30- or 45-day time limit for the credit bureau to complete its investigation. This timeline is one of several requirements outlined in the FCRA that credit bureaus and creditors must follow when there's a dispute. 

Each credit report you review may have slightly different information. You should always check all three bureaus and send your credit dispute letter to the credit bureau that has the error on your report. If they all have the same credit report error, you'll need to send dispute letters to all three. The addresses to send these dispute letters to are shown below:

    Experian

    P.O. Box 4500

    Allen, TX 75013

    TransUnion Consumer Solutions

    P.O. Box 2000

    Chester, PA 19016-2000

    Equifax Information Services, LLC

    P.O. Box 740256

    Atlanta, GA 30374-0256

The CFPB provides an excellent sample letter you can use as a template.

After the Credit Dispute Letter Is Sent

What happens after you send your credit dispute letter? The first thing to know is since you sent it by certified mail, the postal service will soon notify you of the date the credit reporting company received the letter. The credit bureau then has 30 to 45 days to investigate the disputed information. It's 45 days if you used your free copy of your credit report or if you add documentation during the 30-day investigation.

During the dispute process, the credit bureau has to contact the lender and demand verification of the item. If the item is an error, the creditor won't be able to verify it. In that case, the credit bureau will remove the incorrect information from your report. If a creditor, such as a credit card issuer, is unable to find its documentation and later finds it, the credit bureau may later agree to reinsert the item on your credit report. This is legal if it's enough to overcome the evidence you provided. If an item is reinserted, you may want to dispute the item again.

Finally, the credit bureau must notify you within five business days after they complete their investigation. If you do not agree with the credit bureau's decision, it may be time to talk to an attorney. You may have a good lawsuit for a violation of the FCRA. If you take the matter to court, a judge can order the credit bureau to fix your report, as well as award you damages.

The amount of damages you might receive depends on the circumstances of your case. Some FCRA cases have resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts. Usually, the awards are much smaller and may only cover your attorney's fees.

The results of an FCRA lawsuit depend on your circumstances. If you have only one negative mark on your credit report and it's erroneous you probably have a good case. If the error causes you to be denied an important loan, this can strengthen your case. You could be awarded a large verdict. If you have several negative marks on your report and only one is erroneous, you might only get a court order for the credit bureau to fix the error plus the cost of attorney's fees. To get a good feel for your case, it's best to talk to a qualified consumer attorney.

Let’s Summarize…

For many people, the difference between good credit and bad credit is their annual review of their credit reports. It's important to look at your annual free credit report and identify and dispute any errors that could be dragging your credit score down. When you find these errors, you have to send a dispute letter to each credit bureau that's reporting the error. Then follow up to make sure the error doesn't reappear on your credit report. These simple practices can make a big difference in your FICO score.



Written By:

Attorney John Coble

LinkedIn

John Coble has practiced as both a CPA and an Attorney. John's legal specialties were tax law and bankruptcy law. Before starting his own firm, John worked for law offices, accounting firms, and one of America's largest banks. John handled almost 1,500 bankruptcy cases in the eig... read more about Attorney John Coble

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