The Fair Credit Reporting Act, passed in 1970 and amended multiple times since, provides certain rights to credit consumers. One of these is the right to obtain a copy of your credit report from any credit bureau for free once a year.
There are plenty of commercial companies (including one in particular that advertises incessantly on television) who are eager to act as middlemen in obtaining these reports for you – in exchange for a fee or at least your signing up for a free trial of their services that then charges your credit card if you don’t remember to cancel in time – but you can skip those entirely and either contact the credit bureaus directly, or better yet go to AnnualCreditReport.com, which is the source authorized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That site streamlines the process for you of obtaining your current credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
One reason it’s a good idea to check your credit reports each year is that it is not at all uncommon for them to contain errors. Credit bureaus often receive ambiguous or incomplete information and just have to do the best they can with it. There might be damaging claims on your report, for instance, that in fact pertain to someone else with the same or similar name as you.
The law gives you the right, free of charge, to contest anything on your credit report that you contend is inaccurate.
Each of the bureaus will provide you with instructions on how to contest an item. Send a letter to the credit bureau explaining fully and clearly the error you allege. Include any documentation you might have that establishes that the item is in error (canceled checks, bills indicating paid in full, etc.).
Never relinquish original documents. Send copies only.
The credit bureau should acknowledge your letter of dispute, and inform you as to the outcome of their investigation. If you want to be on the safe side, you may want to pay a little extra to have your letter sent “return receipt requested” to make sure it gets there and you know it got there.
If you are not satisfied with the response you get from the credit bureau, a recent change in the law allows you to work through the creditor as well. If you contact the creditor to let them know your credit report wrongly claims you owe them money, and they agree that it is in fact an error, they must notify the credit bureau of this so that it can be removed.
When you find an error on one of your credit reports, be sure to check if it is also on either of the other two. Sometimes an error will be on only one report, but sometimes a common source of information was used by two or all three credit bureaus and they all have the error.
Getting the error taken off one credit bureau’s report doesn’t guarantee it’ll drop off the others. So if necessary, repeat the process above with the other bureau(s) until all three of your reports are clean of errors.