When Daniel Ashcraft turned 18, he not only became a grown-up, he quickly discovered that he had a very grown-up problem. He had terrible credit.
"I went to get a car loan," says Ashcraft, who lives in Oklahoma City. "I learned that there was a bankruptcy on my account, and it had been there since I was 16."
The bankruptcy, Ashcraft insists, wasn't his. And seven years later, even as the 25-year-old has moved on with his life -- marrying, taking a job as a sales representative for a cable company and, on the side, owning and managing his own bookkeeping company, Ashcraft Bookkeeping Services -- that black mark on his credit report has come along with him. He was successful getting it removed from two of three credit bureaus, but one, which he doesn't want to name, never removed it. The bankruptcy won't be on his report much longer, however, since most bankruptcies disappear from a credit report after 10 years. When it is gone, Ashcraft will truly have something to celebrate.
"I've lived off of cash and high-interest loans for my entire [adult] life," Ashcraft says. "You get used to using cash really fast."
You hear it all the time: If you discover erroneous information on a credit report, get it removed. But there is no magic wand to wave or button you can press. You have to contact each of the major credit bureaus, and that takes time, patience and a little know-how. Usually it isn't a difficult process, but it will help you to keep the following in mind.
1. Check your credit reports occasionally. If you aren't checking them occasionally, you won't know there's incorrect information on them.
You can get one free credit report a year from each major credit bureau -- TransUnion, Experian and Equifax -- and if you stagger your requests, so that you receive one report every few months, that's an effective way to continually monitor your credit throughout the year.
If you'd like to check your credit even more frequently, consider going with a free monitoring service such as CreditKarma.com and CreditSeseame.com, suggests Debbi King, a personal finance and life coach in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. "Between the two, they cover all three agencies," she says. "I use both, and I receive notices every time my report changes even for inquiries. These tools will help you clear up erroneous items as quickly as possible."
2. Consider skipping online fixes. If the error is a small one, say a $30 debt that you're positive you never owed, and it's several years old, you may well decide that it's better to just fix the problem through the credit bureau's online dispute form (you'll have to go to all three sites and fill out three forms).
But if you have a major problem like Ashcraft did, many experts advise you go old school and send your gripes in writing to each credit bureau. The Federal Trade Commission has a sample letter you can model yours after, if you go to: consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0384-sample-letter-disputing-errors-your-credit-report.
The FTC advises that your letter clearly identify the item you feel shouldn't be there and clearly explain why. It suggests sending your letter by certified mail, with a "return receipt requested," so you can document what the credit bureau received.
Erica Sandberg, an advice columnist with CreditCards.com, is one of the many personal finance experts who recommends disputing mistakes through the mail versus online.
Why go to so much trouble with old-fashioned certified mail? Especially if you can get it done with some typing and clicking?
If you dispute your case online, "you give up your right to arbitration," Sandberg says.
Now, if you're sweating because you just filed an online dispute with a credit bureau, you may be able to get back your right to arbitrate, but act quickly. For instance, on TransUnion's site, consumers are alerted that after they send in the disputed materials online, they must notify the bureau within 60 days that they reject the arbitration clause in the TransUnion Interactive Service Agreement.
You aren't going to go to court over a $30 charge, and so again, in a low-stakes cases, the Internet may be the way to go. But if these charges are really important to you, and especially if somebody has stolen your identity and made your life a living hell, and you want to have the legal path as a possible option down the road, follow Sandberg's advice: Be safe and use certified mail.
3. Provide documentation. Sandberg recommends sending any documentation you have supporting your contention that the error on the report is actually an error. Ashcraft concurs. He was able to eventually get two of the three major bureaus to remove the bankruptcy, which evidently occurred when another Daniel Ashcraft in Oklahoma declared bankruptcy. Somehow, the bureaus merged both of their accounts, says Ashcraft.
The supporting documentation he had, Ashcraft says, went a long way toward proving he hadn't declared bankruptcy when he was 16 years old.
4. Pick up the phone. Another tip from Ashcraft. You can call the credit bureau's customer service departments and discuss the erroneous items. You can also call the company that says you owe it money in the first place and try to get its representatives on your side.
Don't be surprised if you find yourself tensing up during the call. Ashcraft says the automatic assumption from whomever you're talking to will be that you are trying to get out of some debt you owe. But he says, "You go a lot further by initiating a conversation with saying something like, 'I was in Jamaica SCUBA diving during the time I was supposedly in your hospital getting treated. Can you please help me understand how I received these services?'"
Of course, this is where that supporting documentation comes in handy. If you're just making up stuff to make yourself look good, but can't back up that you were SCUBA diving in Jamaica, you won't get very far. But if you really do have the facts and documentation on your side, Ashcraft says you'll probably end up talking to a human being who will champion your cause, once he or she realizes how absurd your situation is.
5. Remember what you're fighting for. It's easy to wonder whether it really matters that you have a few erroneous items on your credit report, but while Ashcraft got his car when he was 18, he was given a 25 percent APR on his loan. You're trying to raise your credit score so you can lower the amount of interest you're going to pay on your loans. In fact, a 2013 FTC study of the U.S. credit reporting industry concluded that 5 percent of consumers had errors on one of their three major credit reports. If you're in that 5 percent, you could be paying more for everything from your mortgage to your insurance.
But if the error really is legitimate, odds are, you will get the credit bureau to agree to take the item off your credit report. "In order for something to remain on your report, there must be compelling evidence proving the information is accurate," says Kari Luckett, content director for the credit card comparison site CompareCards.com. Generally, she adds, "if the creditor can't prove the information, then the error is removed."
Even Ashcraft agrees: "The credit bureaus usually come around to see the light eventually."
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