Whether you’re contesting an error or combating fraud, use our guide to give yourself the best shot at success. Margaret and Daniel Finelt have both had trouble getting their free credit reports from Equifax. Photograph by Todd Spoth By Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor August 29, 2019From Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Have you ever found yourself fuming at the credit bureaus? You have plenty of company. Among companies in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s database, the three major credit-reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—have logged the most complaints for four years running, according to a report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.SEE ALSO: How Your Credit Score Is Calculated Most of the complaints involve hassles remedying inaccurate information on credit reports. But some are from consumers who find themselves caught in a tangle of red tape or facing an impenetrable wall of indifference. Each year, Margaret Finelt, of Richmond, Texas, gets her free credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. At the site, you are directed to each of the three bureaus. But for the past couple of years, although she’s had no problem claiming her reports from TransUnion and Experian, she’s been unable to obtain her Equifax report. On the phone, Equifax representatives have given her a number of possible reasons: that her credit report is frozen (a freeze prevents lenders from seeing the report in response to a request for new credit in her name), that she failed to correctly answer a security question, or that AnnualCreditReport.com was having a technical issue. Margaret’s husband, Daniel, has since frozen his credit reports—and now he can’t obtain his Equifax report online. By law, a freeze doesn’t prevent you from getting your free annual credit report. In a statement to Kiplinger’s, Equifax confirmed that a credit report is available via the “online, phone or mail channel even if you have a security freeze.” The Finelts finally managed to get their Equifax reports by calling customer service and verbally answering security questions. Advertisement It’s hard to say why the Finelts can’t get their Equifax reports online, but their experience illustrates the everyday difficulties that consumers have with the credit bureaus: receiving scattered or faulty information from agents and encountering roadblocks in processes they expect to be simple. “With Equifax, I dread trying to get anything,” says Margaret. In a battle of you versus the credit bureaus, the bureaus have most of the power—and Congress has been reluctant to regulate them. It took Equifax’s massive data breach two years ago to get the attention of lawmakers. That led to the legislation that allows you to freeze your reports for free but provides few other new protections involving the credit bureaus. Over the past decade, regulators and the attorneys general of several states have managed to enact a few reforms in an effort to improve credit-report accuracy and secure better treatment for consumers. For example, when a bureau confirms that a consumer’s credit-report data is mixed with that of another person, it must inform the other bureaus. Your credit reports may no longer include debt that did not arise from a contract or agreement (such as a parking ticket or library fine) or medical debts that are less than 180 days old. Plus, the bureaus must remove medical debts from credit reports after they’ve been paid by an insurer. The CFPB has directed the bureaus to conduct their own reviews of consumer disputes and documentation—rather than simply passing the buck to the data provider and “parroting” its response back to the consumer—and data providers should have systems capable of receiving consumer-dispute information. But problems persist, according to a National Consumer Law Center report, “and we fear the needle on the speedometer for reform is stuck on slow.” Plus, some of the permitted practices do consumers no favors. For example, the bureaus convert disputes into two- or three-digit codes to summarize complaints for data furnishers. The process mostly involves “computers talking to computers,” says Gerri Detweiler, credit expert and education director for Nav.com, a website offering credit scores and data for businesses. That doesn’t allow for much nuance in what may be a complex dispute. Advertisement Although you can go to court when a dispute fails and may win compensation and a cleaned-up credit record, such cases aren’t much of a threat to the bureaus. “Rather than changing their business practices to be fairer to consumers, they pay go-away money in very small lawsuits. They can afford it as a cost of doing business,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate for U.S. PIRG. Even Equifax’s recent settlement of up to $700 million for its 2017 data breach is “a mere parking ticket,” he says. (For more on the settlement, see The Disappointing Equifax Settlement.) “More needs to be done to rein in the bureaus.” Clear errors from your credit report You may have discovered that something was amiss when you were unexpectedly rejected for credit or received notice of a change from a credit-monitoring service. Rather than wait for a surprise, make it a habit to regularly visit annualcreditreport.com, where you can collect one free report from each bureau every 12 months. Review your reports to ensure that all of the accounts are yours. Check that any accounts you’ve closed are marked as such (accounts in good standing continue to appear on your reports for about 10 years after they’re shut down) and that details such as balances, credit limits and dates that accounts were opened are correct. Make sure your personal information is accurate, too. An incorrect address, for example, could be a sign of a mixed file or identity theft. If your credit report shows information that is inaccurate or incomplete, you have the right to dispute it and have it corrected or deleted. Fixing an error is especially important if it could prevent you from getting credit (or result in a higher interest rate on a loan), renting a home or getting a job. A new collection account that mistakenly appears in your name, for example, will likely cause your credit score to drop significantly. SEE ALSO: 6 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score -- Fast Errors crop up for a variety of reasons. A lender or other furnisher of information may tell the credit bureaus that you’ve missed payments when you haven’t or provide an incorrect balance for your account. Or a bureau may continue to report a delinquency after it should have been removed from your credit file (by law, negative information must disappear after seven years—except for bankruptcies, which may remain for 10 years). Advertisement Another possible problem—one that can be vexing to resolve—is that your credit file is mixed with that of someone else who has the same name or other similarities to your identifying information. It’s especially likely to happen if you have a common first and last name or if you have a family member with the same name. Plus, when matching information from furnishers to consumers’ credit reports, the credit bureaus may consider only seven of a Social Security number’s nine digits. Make your case. If you spot an error, attack it from both sides: Contact the furnisher that provided the data to the credit bureaus as well as each bureau reporting the error. The furnisher’s contact information may appear on your credit report. Be persistent—you may have to ask for a supervisor or talk to representatives from a few different departments before you find someone who can help. If the furnisher agrees to fix a mistake, confirm that it will update all the credit bureaus (which it must do) and ask for written acknowledgment. Because the credit bureaus still often shift a complaint to the data furnisher and regurgitate its response, convincing the furnisher that it made a mistake may be your best bet to get an error off of your report. A couple of years ago, Mike Gnitecki of Longview, Texas, noticed that his credit score, which typically tops an excellent 800, had dropped. After checking his credit reports, he found that payment on a line of credit was being reported as 30 days overdue. A bank representative told him that its records showed no late payments, so he filed a dispute online with each credit bureau. Mike Gnitecki finally got an incorrect late payment removed from his credit report, but, he says, the experience was frustrating. Photograph by Terri Glanger A month passed with no word from the bureaus, says Gnitecki. He then showed his credit report to bank representatives, who concluded that there had been a glitch. The bank fixed it, and the delinquency stopped showing up on his reports. But the process left him less than impressed with the credit bureaus. “It was a frustrating experience. They make it sound like the process is easy. It’s not,” says Gnitecki. “You get the impression that nobody cares.” Advertisement Still, it’s wise to file a dispute with the credit bureaus even as you communicate with the furnisher. That preserves your right to make a legal claim against the data furnisher or bureau if the error isn’t corrected. And the bureaus must investigate a dispute, generally within 30 days, unless they consider it frivolous. A dispute may be deemed frivolous if it comes from a credit-repair company or if it’s a repeat dispute, says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the NCLC. Submitting a dispute online is usually the quickest method, but legal experts recommend sending it via certified mail, return receipt requested, to leave a paper trail. You can find more information on how to file a dispute for each bureau, including mailing addresses and online dispute portals, at equifax.com/disputes, experian.com/disputes and transunion.com/disputes. SEE ALSO: Podcast: Equifax Settlement: Should You Take the Money? Keep the description of your dispute clear and concise. Issues involving a mixed file, fraud or identity theft are prioritized, so be sure to cite the type of problem you have. Describe the resolution you expect—say, the removal of a credit account that isn’t yours from your credit report—and include details about the account in question, such as the account number and the name of the lender or other furnisher. Put in your personal information, including name, Social Security number, mailing address and birth date. Include any supporting documents that may back up your case. Sending a copy of your credit report with the area in question marked may help. If a creditor is falsely reporting that you didn’t pay a bill, try to pull up a bank statement showing that you did. Keep copies of everything you send to the bureaus and furnishers. If you talk to representatives on the phone, note the names of people who spoke with you and the date, time and content of your conversations. Round two. After the bureaus complete their investigations, they should send you written results, plus a free copy of your credit report if something has changed. If your dispute succeeds, give yourself a pat on the back—but stay vigilant in case the error creeps back onto your reports. Legally, that’s prohibited unless the furnisher certifies the item’s accuracy to the bureau, says Wu. If the dispute fails, you have a few options. You can contest the error again, but you likely won’t get anywhere unless you have new information to bring to the table. You may write a 100-word statement to be included in your credit file that tells your side of the story, but it probably won’t be effective. Many lenders view credit reports in a format that doesn’t show the statement, and credit scores don’t consider it, says credit expert John Ulzheimer. Or you can choose to live with the error. That may be acceptable to you if it isn’t causing real harm to your creditworthiness (say, a misspelling of your name). If none of those options are suitable, turn to the government or an attorney for help. Fight fraud If your credit reports contain inaccuracies because an identity thief is at work, the bureaus must block the fraudulent items from appearing as long as you follow certain procedures. Because the Fair Credit Reporting Act contains these special stipulations for fraud, you may see quicker or more streamlined relief than you would when disputing an error. Indicators of identity theft include a hard inquiry from a lender or other business (say, a wireless carrier) that you haven’t dealt with recently or a new credit card, loan or collection account that you don’t recognize. As when disputing an error, you should contact both the entity reporting the fraudulent data as well as the credit bureaus. With the bureaus, start with an online chat or a phone call to clarify what documentation each wants you to send and where it should go, suggests Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit at the Federal Trade Commission’s identitytheft.gov. If you supply it to the bureaus—along with proof of identity, a description of which information on your credit report is fraudulent and a statement that the information resulted from transactions that weren’t yours—the bureaus must block the fraudulent information from your credit reports within four days of receiving your request. SEE ALSO: Capital One Data Breach: 5 Steps to Avoid Identity Theft, Fraud Usually, the process works as it should; if it doesn’t, the reason may be that the victim is dealing with a complex case, says Velasquez. If you’re having trouble getting fraudulent information removed from your credit reports—or otherwise need assistance cleaning up after identity theft—call the Identity Theft Resource Center’s free hotline at 888-400-5530. Agents can guide you through the steps to take and language to use in contending with credit bureaus or other businesses based on the details of your case. If you subscribe to an identity-protection service, its representatives may help you. Check whether your bank, credit card issuer, insurance company or employer offers free or discounted assistance for identity-theft victims, too. Claim your credit reports People are commonly barred from acquiring their credit reports online because they fail the authentication quiz, which poses questions regarding their personal information and accounts. Passing isn’t as easy as it may sound; if you don’t know the exact amount of your mortgage payment or the year you opened a credit card, for example, it’s smart to look it up. Plus, you may be given only a few minutes to complete the questionnaire. Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian, says he once missed an authentication question when his mortgage had been resold and he couldn’t remember the current lender. “We’re trying to achieve a balance. We don’t want the questions to be too easy, so that anybody could get through, but we try not to make them too hard, either,” says Griffin. Other possibilities: The bureau can’t match the information you provide with what it has on file, you have an open dispute with the bureau or you have no credit record. If identity verification is the problem, you may be asked to mail in proof of ID. That’s what Equifax requests when Margaret Finelt attempts to get her report online, but she’s reluctant to send sensitive information through the mail. If you do mail the bureaus copies of your Social Security card, driver’s license, birth certificate or other proof of identity, don’t leave it in your mailbox, where a thief could easily grab it. Take the envelope to the post office and send it via certified mail. Your right to a free report It pays to know when you’re entitled to a free credit report besides those available yearly at AnnualCreditReport.com. After Daniel Finelt of Richmond, Texas, experienced identity theft, an Equifax agent told his wife, Margaret, that he couldn’t get a free report because he had claimed his annual report a month earlier. But because Daniel had placed on his reports an initial fraud alert—which signals to lenders that they should verify a consumer’s identity before granting credit—the law allows him an extra free report. You also get a free report if your file contains inaccurate information because of fraud, if an adverse action has been taken against you because of information in the report, if you’re unemployed and expect to apply for employment in the next 60 days, or if you receive public assistance. For seven years starting in 2020, Equifax will provide all U.S. consumers six free additional copies of their credit report per year, too. Take it to the next level If the bureaus won’t rectify your credit reports despite your due diligence, bring in a third party. Contact consumer protection agencies. Try submitting a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at consumerfinance.gov/complaint. The CFPB will forward your complaint to any bureaus mentioned and let you know their responses. Your state’s department of consumer affairs or attorney general’s office are other avenues for lodging a complaint, says Dana Marineau, vice president and financial advocate for Credit Karma. Write to Congress. Another idea: Write a letter to your U.S. senators and representative. “If a credit bureau gets a complaint from a senator about her constituent, it will bump the complaint higher in the system,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Take legal action. When you’ve exhausted your other options, taking legal action is the final step. “People who jump through the hoops and do everything right but still can’t get relief are the ones who have cases that should be brought in court,” says Justin Baxter, a consumer protection attorney in Portland, Ore. If you’ve kept solid records of your interactions with the bureaus and other parties involved, that will improve your case. At consumeradvocates.org, search for an attorney in your area who specializes in credit reporting. Many such attorneys work on contingency, meaning that if your case wins compensation, the lawyers take a cut of it; otherwise, you don’t pay a fee. SEE ALSO: Why Your Credit Score May Drop When You Shop for a New Phone Plan Skip the credit-repair companies. These companies promise to clean up your credit reports for a fee. Some of these companies barrage the credit bureaus with disputes of legitimate credit-report blemishes—say, collection accounts that their clients truly owe. The bureaus may rightly reject such disputes as frivolous. Plus, armed with knowledge of the system, you can do a better job disputing real errors on your own—free.