Your credit reports — and the credit score that is based on them — help determine whether you can get a loan and how much interest you’ll pay. In some cases, the report might influence whether you get that job or can rent that apartment. And signs of identity theft are often spotted first on credit reports. With all this in mind, it’s a great idea to check regularly for credit report errors.

You’re responsible for what’s on your credit report, both good and bad. Sometimes, though, there’s inaccurate information that’s damaging –  and it’s up to you to fix it. In this article, you’ll learn how to spot errors, what the most common errors are, and, most importantly, how to dispute credit report errors and go about getting them corrected.

How to find credit report errors

First, you have to obtain your credit reports. Good news! Because of the impact of COVID19 on the economy, all three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are providing free weekly reports through December 2022. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to get started.

After December, you can still get one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting companies. Request one at a time and space them out, maybe one free copy every four months. If there’s a mistake in one, it’s likely the same mistake appears in the other two.

You can also use a financial health platform like Best Egg Financial Health which lets you view your credit history and receive alerts when events impacting your credit score appear on your credit reports.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to pay to see your credit reports or credit scores. You can receive your reports and scores free from various places, so beware of companies offering to sell you that information.

Once you have the reports, review them carefully. Each credit bureau uses different formats, but expect to see:

  • Personal information. Names and addresses (current and former), Social Security number, telephone number and employers. An address you don’t recognize could be a sign of identity theft.
  • Credit history. Open and closed mortgages, car loans, credit lines, and credit cards, with notes on whether you pay on time and the balances. Again, make sure you recognize them all.
  • Credit inquiries.Hard inquiries” by banks and other lenders examining your credit-worthiness. If you see a credit inquiry you didn’t initiate, contact the credit bureau right away.
  • Public records. Chapter 13 bankruptcies and foreclosures stay on your credit report for seven years. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy can last up to 10 years.
  • If a creditor has sent your account to a collection agency, this negative information may remain on your record for up to seven years.

Common errors to look for

Here’s a look at some of the most frequently seen report errors:

Inaccurate or incomplete personal information

You may have used different forms of your name on different credit applications. Try to keep these consistent. Misspellings or mix-ups should be corrected, as should addresses, birthdate, your Social Security number, and telephone numbers.

Mistaken accounts

Clerical errors and mix-ups do happen. Examine every account on your report to make sure they belong to you, and that all your accounts are included. An authorized user (spouse or child, for example) should not be listed as an account owner.

If some of your accounts are not on the report, ask the creditor to begin reporting your credit information to the credit bureaus, or consider moving your account to a creditor who does report regularly.

Inaccurate credit reporting

Errors on your credit status can be alarming. If payments are shown to be late or missing, your credit score could suffer. Other common errors are:

  • Open accounts reported closed or vice versa
  • Old bad debts not removed
  • Incorrect dates for opening and closing of accounts
  • Debts from a divorced spouse showing up on your account
  • Incorrect balances or credit limits

Another common error: you closed an account voluntarily, but the credit report shows it was closed by the creditor or grantor, which could be considered negative information.

Don’t dispute accurate but negative information. Instead, focus on improving your credit profile by paying on time and keeping balances low relative to credit limits.

How to dispute an error

The first thing to know about the dispute process is that each bureau works independently of the others. If you find an error in your credit report, you must file disputes separately with each of the three major credit bureaus. Online is usually the easiest and quickest way to do this, but whether you do it electronically or via mail, the basics of disputing an error are the same.

Explain in your dispute letter what you think is wrong and the dispute result you expect. Include the credit bureau’s dispute form and copies of documents that support your dispute (for example, a marriage certificate for a name change).

Keep records of what you sent and when you sent it. If sending via the U.S. Postal Service, use certified mail with a return receipt requested.

How to contact the credit bureaus:

Equifax

Mail dispute form with your letter to

Equifax Information Services LLC, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30348

File a dispute online

Experian

Mail dispute form with your letter to

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

File a dispute online

TransUnion

Mail dispute form with your letter to

TransUnion LLC Consumer Dispute Center, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

Sign up for a free account to file a dispute online

If your dispute is with a financial institution, credit card, or lender (and not, say, a potential identity theft issue), the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau recommends also contacting the company, as they may have provided inaccurate or incomplete information to begin with. You can also try going to the company before filing a dispute with the credit bureaus.

(The Federal Trade Commission has a sample dispute letter template that you can use to contact the credit bureaus.)

What kind of response will I get?

By law, the credit reporting companies must respond within 30 days, and they have five business days to give you the results after an investigation is completed.

What happens if they agree that there was an error?

Usually, each bureau will send either a full credit report or a partial report with a cover page that summarizes any changes they’ve made. In the course of their investigation, they contacted the financial institution or lender that furnished the information, and the furnisher should, in theory, contact the other bureaus. To be on the safe side, contact the other credit bureaus yourself to share the outcome of the investigation.

Check future credit reports to make sure the correct information continues to be reported accurately.

What if they say there was no error?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the credit reporting companies to reinvestigate if you dispute the accuracy or completeness of their findings unless your dispute is “frivolous.” If a reinvestigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the credit reporting company, you can ask that a 100-word statement of the dispute be included in your file and summarized in future reports. You also have the right to bring a lawsuit.

There are two situations when a credit report dispute might be deemed frivolous. One situation is that the information you provided wasn’t sufficient enough for the credit reporting company to investigate. Another situation is that your dispute is – or appears to be – identical to a previous one.

Can you appeal a decision?

There is no limit to how many times you can dispute an error on your credit report. On the other hand, be prepared to submit new information or documents to verify your dispute or it might be deemed “frivolous.”

Each week, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau sends more than 10,000 complaints about financial products and services to companies, including complaints about credit reports. Most companies respond within 15 days. To learn more, visit the CFPB’s complaint site.

To learn more about credit and how you can use it to your advantage, check out Best Egg’s resource center on “Understanding Credit.”