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DIY credit repair: Fixing credit report errors

Like most Millennials, I’m all about instant gratification. One example: I refuse to make mac and cheese on the stove top anymore. I stock up on the instant stuff because that means I can have my toddler’s lunch ready in 3 minutes instead of 20 (and that means we’re 17 minutes closer to nap time).

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When it comes to DIY credit repair, unfortunately there are no quick fixes, no instant changes. It takes consistent, responsible financial behavior and the simple passage of time for negative information to drop off your report ­— like up to seven years’ worth of time.

Luckily, there are still some things you can do to boost your credit score in the meantime. And even though DIY credit repair seems annoying, in my experience taking the time to improve your credit is worth it. Especially if there are errors on your credit report.

There are all kinds of ways information on your credit report can get mixed up. Maybe once you had an outstanding balance on a credit card and it went to collections. Since then you’ve paid it off in full, but it still shows up as unpaid on your Equifax report. A paid negative account looks a lot better to creditors than an unpaid one, so how do you go about getting your report corrected? Some people hire a company to do the dirty work for them, but anything a credit repair company can do, you can do too. DIY credit repair — for free.

Before you get started, you’ll need to obtain copies of your full credit report from the 3 credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Each agency maintains a separate file on you, so there could be different information on each report. You can get free copies of your credit reports once a year from www.annualcreditreport.com.

Credit bureaus generally report:

  • Negative information for 7 years from the date the event took place
  • Bankruptcy information for 10 years
  • Information about an unpaid judgment against you for 7 years, or until the statute of limitations runs out (whichever is longer)

After you dig into your credit reports, you may find some information worth correcting. That’s when you’ll really need to roll up your sleeves and get to work. I won’t sugarcoat it: Fixing errors on your credit report takes time and effort, and you’ll need to be your own best advocate.

DIY credit repair: Taking action

If you do find discrepancies, take action. The quickest way to dispute an item on your credit report is by going online. EquifaxExperian and TransUnion all have dispute centers on their websites. You can create an account to start a new dispute, check the status of an existing dispute and view the results of a completed dispute. You’ll have to do this for each credit agency separately.

If you’d like to submit a dispute and/or send the credit bureaus hard copies of supporting documentation by snail mail, you may decide to follow the steps recommended by the Federal Trade Commission:

  1. Write a letter to the credit bureau noting the items in your credit report you think are inaccurate, and ask that the credit bureau remove them. Make sure you include your complete name and address. Find a sample letter here.
  2. Include copies (not originals — hang on to those) of any documents supporting your claim. Include a copy of your actual credit report, too, with the inaccurate items circled for easy reference.
  3. Send your letter by certified mail with a return receipt requested. That way you have proof that the credit bureau actually received your letter.

Credit reporting agencies have to investigate the items you question within 30 days (unless they consider your dispute “frivolous”). They’re also required to forward the information you provide them to the organization that provided them the information in the first place. After the information provider gets a dispute notice from the credit reporting agency, it must investigate, review any relevant information and report the results back to the credit reporting company. If it turns out the disputed information is inaccurate, the information provider has to notify all 3 of the credit reporting agencies so they can each correct it in your file.

Whew.

After all that, the credit reporting company has to give you a copy of the results in writing, too. And if you ask, they will send notices of any corrections to anyone who received your credit report in the past 6 months.

If the investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the credit reporting agency, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports — so, at least your version of the events is on your record. You also can ask the credit reporting agency to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past (although, you’ll probably have to pay for this).

If you’re able to successfully clean up errors on your credit report, keep it clean by staying on top of things. A yearly review is a good idea.