Recently, a colleague of mine and her husband experienced what it’s like to find out you have a credit report error… the hard way. She is hoping her experiences will allow others to see the importance of staying on top of keeping a clean credit report and how simple it can actually be. Read on for her story!
My husband and I are young professionals, and we try to make good choices with our money and credit. Almost two years ago, we bought our first place together, a modest townhouse, and combined our bank accounts. Through these processes, we reviewed our credit scores, and we were happy with them. They were quite good, especially considering our short credit histories due to our young ages.
Fast forward to now, nearly two years later, and we’re ready to move into a larger house. We knew what we could afford and started looking around with our realtor. Since we were confident in our calculations on affordability, we thought it best to wait for banks to dig into our credit until we were ready to make an offer. We found a place we liked, and the price was right, so that weekend, we submitted our online application for a new mortgage.
The following Monday, I received a phone call from the lender. I must have looked like a cartoon character as my mouth dropped open when he told me how low my husband’s score was. What? That couldn’t be possible! He has no loans besides our current mortgage, and we pay our credit cards in full every month, using them only to about 5-10% of our limits.
I immediately went to www.annualcreditreport.com and checked all three of my husband’s credit reports. This site allows you to check each of your reports (Experian, Equifax and Transunion) once each year for free in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and it’s very simple to use. A good strategy to regularly check your credit is to space these checks out and check one report every trimester to maximize your free opportunities, but in our situation, we needed them all at once. You can always pay for another credit report later in the year if necessary.
We discovered there was an error on two of his three reports. It was a collections account for money that my husband owed to an old employer, but we paid it immediately upon receiving it over a year ago and had no prior knowledge of the debt before the collections notice. However, these are considered “serious delinquencies” and will stay on a credit report for seven years if no action is taken against them.
It was time to file disputes. We were a bit concerned about disputing, because these errors were technically not fraud. However, we learned that you can dispute items that you own and items that you don’t. In other words, you can dispute items that are technically yours but should not be on your report, like my husband’s collections items, and items that are fraudulent and are in no way legitimately connected to you – not yours.
We opted to file our disputes online with each of the two bureaus that displayed the collections account. To do this, we went to each of their individual websites and located the option to file a dispute. We chose the option to file a dispute for an item that my husband owned, and we had a chance to write an explanation of our dispute after answering a couple other questions. You are also given the opportunity to attach supporting documents if you have any. It was surprisingly simple, and upon completing our dispute with each bureau, we received a confirmation email with instructions on how to check the status of the disputes.
Each bureau will solve disputes within 30 days unless there are circumstances which require deeper investigation and/or assistance from other parties in the investigation. My online research (fueled by my impatience) revealed that many disputes are solved in about two weeks, although the bureaus will neither confirm or deny this. Fortunately, our disputes were simple and were both solved within one week. And to our relief and surprise, both bureaus deleted the collections account from my husband’s report! We did a quick, free check of his credit score on www.creditkarma.com to see if his score had gone up. This is a soft check, so it does not negatively impact your report or score. The shocking result: his score went up a whopping 80 points! We were appalled to think that an error on a credit report could affect a score that much and prevent someone from getting a loan.
Happily, we were able to get our credit rechecked and get everything back on track the way we originally planned for our new house. But had we been checking our credit over the last two years, we could have significantly reduced the added stress of a situation that can already be stressful on its own. The FTC has reported that one in five Americans has an error on their credit report. Our advice is to check it regularly to avoid a situation like ours.
Checking Your Report
Check your credit reports once each year for free. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com to obtain one report each from Experian, Equifax and Transunion every twelve months. If you don’t have credit concerns, check only one each trimester to spread out your free opportunities.
If you find a mistake on your credit report, you can submit a dispute online through the appropriate bureaus’ sites (www.experian.com, www.equifax.com or www.transunion.com), or you can submit a dispute via mail.
Checking Your Score
Contrary to popular belief, checking your credit score does not hurt it. You can use reputable sites to check your score using only a soft inquiry, which does not impact your score. (Hard inquires for new credit cards and loans are examples of items that would negatively impact your credit.) Some credit cards, like Discover, include your FICO score with your monthly statement. Non-customers can use this service through Discover’s website as well. Www.creditkarma.com is also a reliable source for your credit score. You may also consider checking your online banking information or asking your bank if they have it readily available for you if you are not comfortable reviewing it online with a third party.
No matter how careful you are with your money and your credit, you can never be 100% sure of your situation unless you take steps to be proactive in monitoring it. If you have concerns, talk to your CPA or financial advisor about how you can protect yourself from credit mistakes.
A little more about us:
Located in West Des Moines, Iowa with a branch office in Winterset, Iowa, McGowen, Hurst, Clark & Smith, P.C. celebrates 65 years of extending excellent service to our clients, providing them with accounting, auditing, consulting and investment expertise.
Established in 1946, our staff has grown from 3 to 60 employees, making us large enough to provide our clients with a broad base of experience and resources, yet small enough to offer very personalized service—which we feel makes us stand apart from other CPA firms. In addition to the traditional services of Accounting, Tax Preparation, Audit and Business Consulting, MHC&S offers our clients specialized services including Estate Planning, Business Valuations, Cost Segregation Studies, Retirement Planning, QuickBooks Training, Financial Advisory Services, Fraud Detection and Deterrence, Business Succession Planning, Litigation Support and more.
MHC&S is a member of CPAmerica International, Inc., a national association of accounting firms offering membership to only 90 firms throughout the United States. This association offers a wide pool of additional technical expertise to the members firms, as well as continuing professional education necessary to maintain the degree of excellence which MHC&S feels is vital in today’s business environment.