5 Steps to Take to Remove False Information From Your Credit Report
When Congress passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in 1970, it wanted a law with built-in checks and balances to give consumers a means to correct information in their credit reports. Congress created a procedure the consumer credit reporting agencies and consumers must follow when consumers find false data in their credit reports. Congress also wrote a procedure consumers can follow when the consumer credit reporting agencies don’t keep up their end of the bargain and fix or delete false information.
This article describes in a step-by-step manner how to dispute a debt, and a follow-up process to use when the consumer credit reporting agencies do not remove information you can prove is wrong. This process is designed to remove incorrect information in your reports. It will not remove accurate derogatory information in your reports.
The three biggest consumer credit reporting agencies in the US are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Get no-cost, no-gimmick copies of your three credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com. Because each consumer credit reporting agency is independent of the other two, you must check each report to learn if each contains accurate information about your accounts.
Step 1: File a Dispute With the Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies
You have several options to file a dispute:
Step 2: Investigation
Upon receipt of a dispute, the consumer credit reporting agency must, within five days, give notice of the dispute to the creditor that reported the information. It must include the consumer’s reason for the dispute and other information the consumer provided.
Here’s what the FCRA requires:
...(consumer credit reporting) agency shall, free of charge, conduct a reasonable reinvestigation to determine whether the disputed information is inaccurate and record the current status of the disputed information, or delete the item from the file... before the end of the 30-day period beginning on the date on which the agency receives the notice of the dispute from the consumer or reseller. [FCRA § 611(a)(1)]
...The notice shall include all relevant information regarding the dispute that the agency has received from the consumer or reseller. [FCRA § 611(a)(2)]
To comply with the FCRA, the consumer credit reporting agencies and major creditors use a private, Web-based communications system called e-Oscar to share information with each other about consumer disputes. For the most part, the dispute process is automated. When a consumer credit reporting agency receives a dispute from a consumer, a credit reporting agency takes a minute or so to read the dispute, classify it as a two-digit code, and sends an automated message to the creditor using e-Oscar. Note that it appears e-Oscar does not appear to comply with FCRA § 611(a)(2) because it fails to include all relevant information regarding the dispute to the creditor about the consumer’s dispute.
The creditor must take one of three actions when it receives notice of a dispute via e-Oscar or another means:
- Ignore it. If the credit reporting agency does not receive a reply from the creditor making the report in 30 days, the credit reporting agency must remove the item in question from the consumer’s credit report. Note the deadline can be stretched to 45 days if the consumer provides additional information during the 30-day period.
- Change it. The creditor issues a correction to the credit reporting agency based on either the consumer’s information or a review of its records. If the information disputed is wrong, the information provider may not report it again.
- Verify the information’s accuracy. The creditor indicates the information published is accurate. Here is where the method of verification question comes into play.
If the consumer credit reporting agency changes the information in question, it will inform the consumer.
Generally, creditors spend a few seconds in e-Oscar with each dispute to make the Ignore, Change, or Confirm decision. They tend not to review a consumer’s history or monthly statements, but look at a summary to determine if addresses, Social Security numbers, and final balances match. Bills.com readers report that if an account is paid in full or paid as agreed (in other words, settled), creditors will tend to ignore a dispute. However, if the debt is unresolved, then creditors will tend to take the time to hit the Confirm button. Remember, the dispute process is designed to correct credit report errors, and not to remove accurate information a consumer may dislike.
You may wonder what’s the point in sending a detailed dispute CMRRR if the consumer credit reporting agency will reduce all of your evidence to a two-digit code, and not share the your evidence or other documents with the creditor that reported the false information. The next steps will start to make this clear.
Step 3: Reply & Request the Method of Verification
Many consumers think they reached the end of the road when a consumer credit reporting agency verifies and does not change or delete inaccurate information in their credit report. That is not necessarily the case. A consumer credit reporting agency must explain the party reporting the information verified it. And, if the consumer asks, the credit reporting agency must explain the method of verification and how it investigated the consumer's dispute. Here’s the law:
...if requested by the consumer, a description of the procedure used to determine the accuracy and completeness of the information shall be provided to the consumer by the agency, including the business name and address of any furnisher of information contacted in connection with such information and the telephone number of such furnisher, if reasonably available; [FCRA § 611(a)(6)(B)(iii)]
...A consumer reporting agency shall provide to a consumer a description referred to in paragraph (6)(B)(iii) by not later than 15 days after receiving a request from the consumer for that description. [FCRA § 611(a)(7)]
If the consumer credit reporting agency states that a creditor verified information in your credit report you belief to be false, write a letter to the consumer credit reporting agency demanding the method of verification per the FCRA. Include the reference number it sent you in the statement it sent you indicating the information was verified, and copies of your original letter requesting verification of the erroneous information. Make a copy of everything you send, including the new letter, the evidence, and your earlier verification request. Keep copies of all of your letters and evidence in a safe place. Send your method of verification letter CMRRR.
It is likely the credit reporting agency used nothing more than e-Oscar communications to verify the debt. If after 30 days you hear nothing from the credit reporting agency, or it simply repeats its earlier statement about verification and does not explain its method of verification, then you can take the next step.
Call the original creditor and not the collection agent if your collection account is owned by a collection agent. Ask the original creditor for records of the debt. If the creditor says they have no record then move to the next step. If the original creditor says is gave all records of the account to the collection agent, ask for the collection agent’s name and telephone number. If either the original creditor or collection agent has the records, ask them to send you copy under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003.
Use Certified Mail, return receipt requested (CMRRR) when communicating with a collection agent or the consumer credit reporting agencies. Why? Two reasons. First, you know exactly who received your letter and when. Second, the recipient cannot argue they did not receive your letter when you have the receipt that states who signed for the letter.
If you are sent records of your account, review them and decide if they contain sufficient detail to show you owe the debt and the amount claimed. If the records are thin and not conclusive, take the next step.
Step 4: Intent to Sue Warning
If the original creditor has no records, or the records consist of summary information, send another letter to the credit reporting agency and explain that you conducted your own investigation and found that the creditor has either no record of the debt, or unconvincing and insufficient records. Explain that the credit reporting agency must open another dispute. If you spoke to the original creditor on the telephone, include the name and telephone number of the customer service representative. If your new information is in paper form, make a reference to it in your letter, and include a copy in your letter. Explain that if they refuse to remove or correct your credit report, state that you will retain counsel and will review your rights to file a lawsuit for willful non-compliance under FCRA § 616. Send this letter CMRRR. Again, keep good records of the letters you send because you may need them later.
The credit reporting agency has two options when it receives your letter. It can reopen its investigation, or it can refuse to do so. If it reopens the investigation, it will, within 30 days, send you letter indicating it reopened the investigation. This letter will include a new reference number.
If you do not receive a letter within about 35 days, you can assume the credit reporting agency is not opening a new investigation. Send the credit reporting agency a final letter indicating you intend to file a lawsuit against it under FCRA § 616 unless it removes the incorrect information immediately. Include copies of your earlier correspondence. Again, send this letter CMRRR.
Step 5: Consult with a Lawyer
Consult with a lawyer in your state who has experience with consumer credit cases. Take all of your correspondence to your meeting with your lawyer. The lawyer will review the facts of your case and advise you whether or not you could benefit from taking legal action.
If you uncovered convincing, clear evidence of an FCRA violation, the lawyer may take your case on a contingency-fee basis. With a contingency fee, your lawyer doesn't charge you an up-front fee, but takes a percentage of any money won in a suit.
The FCRA’s § 616 allows consumers to file civil actions against reporters of false information, too. Talk with your lawyer about filing an action against the creditor/reporter if you find evidence a it gave false information about you to a consumer credit reporting agency.
Before you sign any contingency fee agreement with a lawyer, make sure you understand who pays the following fees, and if any of these will be deducted from your award should you win:
- Filing fees
- Travel and parking
- Paralegal billable hours