Credit disputes and how to correct your credit report

Credit disputes, the FCBA and the FCRA

The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) is a 1974 federal law designed to protect consumers from unfair credit billing practices. It lays out consumers’ rights to dispute credit card issuers’ charges (source).

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law that regulates the collection of consumers’ credit information and access to their credit reports. It was passed in 1970 to address the fairness, accuracy, and privacy of the personal information contained in the files of the credit reporting agencies (source).

Correcting your credit report

Approval of a loan or a credit card application depends on the information in your credit report. What can you do when your credit report contains errors? Below are five steps to correct mistakes in your credit report.

Step 1 - Get a copy of your credit report

Consumers may obtain a free copy of their consumer report on line once every 12 months. To obtain your free copy of your credit report simply go to www.annualcreditreport.com and request your complimentary Equifax, Experian and Trans Union profiles.

They provide an address and phone number as well:

Annual Credit Report Request Service

PO Box 105281 Atlanta GA 30348-5281

Phone: 887-322-8228 (15 day turn around from day of call)

Note: please be careful if you type in the web address as crooks reserved similar site names in the past hoping to intercept private information.

If you have already requested a complimentary credit report during the past 12 months then there is a fee to request another copy in normal times (once where affected by COVID). You may also obtain a free credit report from the reporting agency used to deny you credit in the past 60 days.

The addresses are as follows:

TransUnion – phone general inquiries 833-395-6938

1561 E. Orangethorpe Avenue

Fullerton, CA 92831-5217

Equifax

Equifax Information Services, LLC

PO Box 740256

Atlanta GA 30374-0256

Experian

Experian, P.O. Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013

No Fee if Denied Credit: You are entitled to a free report within 60 days of credit denial. The agency on which denial is based will be mentioned in the notice.

Step 2 - Reading the report

When you get your credit report the credit reporting agency may include a pamphlet or similar paperwork explaining how to read their particular format. There are generally five sections as follows:

1. Identification Information

This section usually includes your name, address, social security number, date of birth, former addresses, your employer’s name, your job description and possibly your home phone number.

2. Importance of Credit History in correcting your credit

This section shows various accounts and how timely you paid on them. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau states about 40% is credit card information, 18% retail credit cards, 13% debt collection accounts, seven percent student loans, seven percent closed end consumer loans (i.e. car loans), seven percent mortgage loans and five percent other loans.

Tradeline

There are two main types of accounts you see under “credit history”.

The first is revolving credit – meaning the minimum amount owed may be definite, but the payment due each month can be variable. This is typical of credit cards.

Second is “installment accounts” – a definite amount due in fixed installments. A mortgage payment is typical of these, also student loans.

Underneath the accounts, it may reflect how and when payments were made on them. The credit bureaus break-down the account if there are late payments to show how many payments are 30, 60, 90 and 120 days past due (and some indicate later past dues of 150 days). Thus (3)(30), (2)(60), (1)(90) means you have paid three times past 30 days, two times past 60 days and once 90 days past the due date. If an account is fairly old, it may state that it is a “charge off”, if you paid it after it was charged off it may state that it is a “paid charge off.”

Collection accounts

These accounts are being collected, usually by a collection agency, but sometimes also by companies that buy huge portfolios of charged off debt collect as well as some alleged law firms. Some collection agencies like to operate under the name of a lawyer or law firm to scare consumers by making litigation appear more likely.

3. Public records

It used to be a wide variety of pubic records information was reported on consumer reports by the national bureaus including criminal cases, small claims and lawsuits, then it switched to mostly Federal Tax Liens, State Tax Liens (aka Tax Warrants) and Judgments but now it mostly means Bankruptcies. All public record information is derogatory, meaning it will not improve your creditworthiness if it ends up on your credit report. They get bankruptcy information from federal government websites and some state websites, but in the past they went to tcourthouse and there have been problems, especially with family members with the same name (e.g. junior senior relationships or the same or similar names).

4. Inquiry Section

This is a listing of businesses that have either pulled your full credit report, pulled certain information on your report or have “prescreening” your report. The credit card company you applied to, the car dealership that illegally pulled your credit report, the credit bureau pulling your report at your request and others will show as inquiries. Generally if your full credit report was procured, an abbreviated name of the business will appear without initials in front of it. Generally, if a company with which you already have an account pulls your credit report or if a company’s name appears that you have no affiliation with, there is a chance that your name and address were provided to the company as part of a “prescreening” program. “Prescreening” means that a creditor has gone to the credit bureau and asked for a list of addresses of people who meet certain criteria (e.g. mortgage over $300,000 etc.).

Basic concepts: Charge Off

Federal regulations provide that a delinquent account is to be charged off 180 days after the date of delinquency. 64 Fed. Reg. No. 27, 6655 “Uniform Retail Classification and Account Management Policy”

Step 3 - Locating the cause of credit mistakes

Errors In Credit Reports Occur Often: fraud, data entry mistakes, improper merging of information by the CRA to name a few. The errors can be caused by the creditor, the CRA, a thief, or a collection agency, public record etc.

  • Creditor error. Improper Format: The creditor or “furnisher” of information to the CRA provides the information in a database format that allows the CRA to bring the information right into its database without entering everything again. The individual pieces of data are known as “fields”. The current format is “METRO 2”. METRO 2 was created in order to comply with the 1996 amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. However, some creditors have not moved to METRO 2 and are still using METRO 1. This can create many problems in providing correct consumer information, especially regarding bankruptcy.
  • CRA Error. Most credit reporting agencies use name, address, social security number and date of birth to identify who you are. The CRA can err mismerging information where identifying information is similar. This happens most frequently where there is a junior/senior relationship. It also can happen when social security digits are similar within two digits. If the adult child with the same name as the parent moves home, big problems can result. There can also be problems where a recently married spouse has the same first name as a step child or the ex-spouse.
  • Collection Agency Error. Some companies intentionally (and illegally) place collection accounts on credit reports to get the victim to pay. Collection agencies know some people will pay amounts, even if they don’t owe, if they are attempting to get credit. Under recent amendments to the FCRA, you can proceed against the collection agency that improperly reports the information. The source of the problem sometimes arises because creditors and credit bureaus sometimes don’t provide enough identification details when inputting new information into a file.
  • Incorrect Names. An incorrect name or social security number inputting by the creditor can go to the wrong consumer’s file (e.g. incomplete consumer’s name such as “J.M. Jones” could either be “John Michael Jones” or “Jay Milhous Jones” or any other combination, “Sam” could be “Samuel”, “Samson”, or a female “Samantha.”) This frequently happens with common names or where there is a junior/senior relationship.
  • Public Records Error. The Big Three pay companies to go through court files and official records to obtain information. Judgments, bankruptcies and tax liens are the most frequently reported public records. If the reporting agency does not have the company check often enough, the fact that a judgment or bankruptcy was later vacated or satisfied may not get reported. Tax liens are a frequent cause of errors in credit reports.
Step 4 - Why documents?

Documents Are Important. Many credit card companies, banks and even credit reporting agencies provide toll free numbers and websites you can use to dispute credit errors. It’s better to document your credit error dispute on paper. However, if you decide to use the phone, follow-up in writing. Acknowledge the conversation (e.g. “this letter is a follow-up to my conversation by phone with your representative named Joe Smith in which we discussed . . .”). Send everything in writing by certified mail and if possible with a return receipt requested form. There are many reasons to write the dispute in addition to or instead of over the phone. Some of these are as follows:

  • Show Concern. Just the fact that you bothered to collect your thoughts and write formally shows you truly are concerned with the credit errors on your report. If you need the help of an attorney or regulatory agency later, they are more likely to take note of the seriousness with which you regard the matter.

  • Objective versus Subjective proof. Your goal should be to turn a dispute involving subjective proof (ie you have to talk to a bunch of people to get to the bottom of things) into a matter where a third person could come in and look at your letters and tell the credit reporting was mixed up.
  • Allow you to accurately track your case. There may be many people involved in your dispute before it is resolved. First, many of the employees of credit institutions turn over regularly and you may be sent to a different person for each investigation. Also, you may need to show your paperwork to attorneys, law enforcement (in fraud cases), regulatory agencies and perhaps to a court. Having documents helps others “get up to speed”. Many credit companies use software to have a chronology of their contacts with you, but it is recorded in a very self-serving manner to make the company look reasonable at your expense. Don’t rely on a creditor keeping track of your matter in anything but a self serving manner.
  • Legal Effect. The obligations of some credit companies under some laws are not triggered unless you provide a written dispute.
Step 5 - Send dispute letters

Send Disputes to Credit Reporting Bureaus. It is imperative you send dispute letters directly to the credit reporting agency. This is not only a logical step, to have an action against a company that provides false data to a credit reporting bureau, you must provide the credit reporting bureaus notice and the liability of that furnisher under the Fair Credit Reporting Act depends on their response to the credit dispute it provides to the credit reporting bureau. One of the difficulties in sending disputes to the credit reporting bureaus is they want to accept disputes online. Do your own research on addresses before mailing your letters. The addresses that have worked recently are as follows:

  • Experian. Experian, P.O. Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013. Double check the address before sending as Experian is especially prone to changing post office boxes and then not allowing forwarding.
  • Equifax. Equifax Information Services LLC PO Box 740241 Atlanta GA 30374; P.O. Box 105891, Atlanta, GA 30374. This is an address that has worked recently. Double check the address here before sending correspondence.
  • Trans Union. TransUnion Consumer Solutions P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016-2000,  is an address that has worked in the past. Double check online before sending.

Send Credit Disputes By Certified Mail Return Receipt Requested. Many attorneys who deal with credit reporting issues think it’s imperative you send the disputes by certified mail return receipt requested instead of by phone and over the internet. With certified mail, you can track the letter all the way to the credit reporting bureau: www.usps.com. You’ll need the Receipt for Certified Mail (attach this form to the letter following the directions at the bottom of the receipt), the Domestic Return Receipt (fill in sections Addressee 1; Article Number 2; Service Type 3, check “certified mail”; also write your address on the reverse site) and, of course, postage. At the time this was written the cost was $3.60 to send a letter with a couple pages by certified mail and an extra $2.85 to send by return receipt requested (PS form 3811). It may cost a little more if you send more than a page or two because of the added weight. Check at www.usps.com for postal rates. Although the post office seems to want the letter presented to them for the receipt to be stamped, simply putting the correct postage on the letter and placing it in the mail, then tracking it on the web seems to work. Talk to your local post office to determine how it likes to handle the mailing.

Some tips I have for sending letters based on a few years of experience:

  • Attachments: Double check all the attachments are included in each letter.
  • Post Office Boxes: If you don’t use a street address for the credit reporting bureau you have to use the US Postal Service.
  • Out of Envelope: If sent by US Mail, by certified mail return receipt requested is best and usually better to go into the post office with letters ready to send but not sealed in the envelope so you can write the “receipt for certified mail” number on each letter and your copies (or you can use the little sticker that detaches from the bottom of the receipt for certified mail);
  • Not Registered Mail: Registered mail is not necessary. Just Certified and Return Receipt Requested or even just certified if you don’t want the extra protection of having it signed for;
  • Copies, Notes and Receipts: Have copies of all the letters made including each attachment with the written receipt for certified mail number on it (or the little sticker with the number on it). Don’t plan on using the Word file as evidence. Nothing beats a copy of the letter with a handwritten note on it stating when the originals were posted or picked up by FEDEX (ie you found and are using a street address) with the receipt for certified mail stapled to it. Handwritten notes are really helpful on these things used as  evidence.
  • Cost: Keep a copy of the receipt for mailing

Where to Send Credit Disputes. It is not absolutely necessary to send disputes to the company furnishing incorrect credit information to the credit reporting agency, but it certainly doesn’t hurt and may put them on the same sheet of music with the credit reporting agency with the investigation, especially in theft of identity cases where there are affidavits and police reports. In the past credit reporting agencies had not send your dispute documents to the furnisher of information – they typically just summarized the dispute into a code. If a credit reporting bureau were reporting the Gettysburg Address, the story would read: “Code 8 – Died For Union”. However now they can forward dispute documents electronically including affidavit, police report or copies of other relevant documents. The bureaus are not truly concerned with the “maximum possible accuracy” as required by the FCRA. They have outsourced to countries and in many cases not trained their employees on investigating disputes properly. Like your disputes with the credit reporting bureaus, you will want to send it all by certified mail return receipt requested. Some credit card companies have been known to deny receiving mail even when their representative signed a receipt for certified mail!

Styles of Credit Disputes. Goal: to make the dispute objective versus strictly “he said/ she said”. With disputes you want to provide the information necessary to have your dispute investigated and convey what is happening to you as a result of the false credit reporting. There are no statutes you need to state in the letter as long as you provide in plain words what you are demanding. Letters that have a lot of statutes sometimes look a little too smart for their own good. If a company has a statutory obligation under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or the Fair Credit Billing Act, giving them the statute isn’t going to affect that obligation as the demand is stated in plain English.

Basics of Contesting Credit Errors. The minimum information is as follows:

  1. Name of the company reporting the inaccurate entry;
  2. credit account number;
  3. a statement that the account was in error;
  4. why you believe the credit report is in error;
  5. what you want done (i.e. whether you want the entire account deleted or corrected in a certain way);
  6. that you want a statement from the CRA of the manner in which it investigated the claim including the name and phone number of anyone contacted in connection with the reinvestigation;
  7. your name, social security number, address and date of birth;
  8. attach relevant documents to your dispute. Further, you may want to attach a copy of your credit report from that company or a copy of your drivers license or utility bill that shows your current address if you moved recently. You might also add requests for verification if you are dealing with a collection agency, statement of billing error if you are dealing with a credit card company and demand to send corrected information directly to a company that pulled your report if you were denied credit based on an error in a report.

Types of Credit Disputes. Credit dispute letters should be tailored to the type of recipient and the sender’s situation. The credit disputes below are just an example and should be a starting point in deciding what to write. There are some companies that sell credit dispute forms. No credit dispute form can possibly be used to solve the many types of errors consumers encounter. Rather than use credit dispute forms, a consumer is better off being providing the information that covers their individual situation. Letters to credit reporting bureaus and furnishers of information should consider the Fair Credit Reporting Act, disputes to collection agencies should take into account the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and possibly the Fair Credit Billing Act and disputes to credit card companies may want to take into account the Fair Credit Billing Act.

Multiple Disputes, Increasing Information Provided. If you send more than one dispute, you should send more information each time you dispute, perhaps providing more detail each time, attaching documents or even providing a declaration if the matter becomes a matter of he said/she said. You should not send the exact same dispute over and over but respond to any claim made or implied. Keep in mind the shifting responsibility – the more information you provide the more the furnisher and reporting agency is supposed to do in the investigation.

Noting Debt As Disputed. An important right you have to improve your credit score is noting a debt as disputed during the credit report dispute process. You have this right under many laws and it has been interpreted as applying to furnishers of credit report information under their obligations to investigate and modify information on a credit report.

  • Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act the furnisher has a duty to report the dispute. 15 USC section 1681s-2(a)(3) Duty to provide notice of dispute. If the completeness or accuracy of any information furnished by any person to any consumer reporting agency is disputed to such person by a consumer, the person may not furnish the information to any consumer reporting agency without notice that such information is disputed by the consumer.
  • For Washington consumers and business people, you have rights to note debts as disputed under the Washington Collection Agency Act 19.16.250(10)(a): licensee (i.e. collection agency) shall, upon receipt of written notice from the debtor that any part of the claim is disputed, notify the credit reporting bureau of the dispute by written or electronic means and create a record of the fact of the  notification and when the notification was provided.
  • Fair Debt Collection Practices Act 15 USC 1692e(8) Communicating or threatening to communicate to any person credit information which is known or which should be known to be false, including the failure to communicate that a disputed debt is disputed.

If you dispute the debt, you should send the dispute to the company furnishing your information when you are lodging a credit report error dispute. Otherwise, companies that review your reports may assume you agree with what is reported.

Summary

  • Send in a paper letter. Disputes over the phone or internet tend not to be worth the paper they aren’t written on. If the customer representative is abusive, the recordings tend to “disappear” and account notes written by a customer service representative tend to be very self-serving (for the one taking the notes, not you!).
  • Dispute With Spouse. If you and your spouse jointly dispute your credit reports, you can send in one letter with both names and identifiers listed.
  • Date. Assume you’ll have to send more than one letter and having the date on all the letters helps you and more importantly a person helping you (government agency, attorney etc) keep it all straight.
  • Proper address. Double check the correct address to send a dispute. Some credit bureaus have canceled addresses and not provided a forwarding address (even when the alternative PO box is in the same post office building).
  • Credit Bureau. Put in the proper address for the credit reporting bureau provided above. Sometimes the bureaus change their addresses (especially the PO boxes) so double check the addresses provided here before sending. It may be better to send to a street address for the credit reporting bureau and that opens up the possibility of sending by FEDEX and UPS (these private companies cannot deliver to a PO Box).
  • Furnisher of Bad Information. Some of the addresses of furnishers in the credit report are bad because creditors have not updated what they provided the credit bureau. If you are lodging a “billing dispute for a credit card, be sure to send to the address provided in your agreement or on the billing.
  • Your address. Hopefully you can use your address that the credit bureaus have had on file for a few months to correspond. If not consider sending a utility bill and license with your new address to reduce problems.
  • Identify yourself:
  • For Credit Reporting Bureaus, list your social security number and date of birth.
  • For creditors or collection agencies, list account numbers and collection account numbers.
  • Identify The Information Disputed. If it’s an account you are disputing, the account numbers (old credit card account number and collection account); public records, by the cause number and court or other number assigned by the credit reporting bureau (“I dispute the listing on my report of a tax lien filed in King County in Downtown Seattle Cause number 14-1496-OSEA; and if identifying information provide what is reported and what should be reported (“a social security number 532 55 5555 is on my report and mine is 532 55 5556.
  • Technical stuff:
  • Collection Agency. Consider whether to say you “dispute the debt” (if true) and/or “refuse to pay” (this may bring the matter to a head and they may sue you).
  • Credit card company. State they have made a “billing error” or you have a “billing dispute.” Look at your agreement to find the correct address to send the written dispute to.
  • Credit Bureau. State whether you are asking them to “correct” or “delete” the listing.
  • Proof of Identity. Increasingly bureaus are claiming they don’t have confidence you are who you say you are even if your address has been the same for 10 or more years. To avoid this it is a good practice to send a copy of the driver’s license with your current address and a utility bill or two.
  • Theft of Identity. Considerations:
  • Sending in a police report or affidavit of fraud as an enclosure.
  • Fraud Alert: Ask for an initial fraud alert to get notice when someone applies for an account using your credit (good for a year); to get an extended fraud alert (good for seven years) send in an affidavit of fraud.
  • Plain Statement. Don’t use statutes you found on the internet. Most disputes can be summarized in a few paragraphs. Ask specifically that the reporting be corrected or deleted.
  • Summary. When you have a bunch of errors on your credit report it can be difficult to address all one by one without making the dispute letter as big as an encyclopedia. Instead, some things can be summarized succinctly by stating saying something like “I have paid all my bills on time and I dispute any account listing a late payment” (if true) or “I never opened an account in 2015 and that is when a thief applied for credit in my name, delete any account that claims to have been opened after 2014 as I never applied for credit after 2014 and that is when the thief apparently was active.”
  • Enclosures. Consider sending copies of documents that prove the error. Public record records, letters and for theft of identity, police reports and affidavits of fraud (the FTC has a standardized version). Refer to the enclosure below your signature.
  • Sign your letter.
  • Make a copy of your letter. There are some apps that you can make a PDF copy of your letter, or more low tech, you can fax it to yourself or take a picture of it.

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