How do I clean up my credit reports?
By Erica Sandberg
March 4, 2014
Last week, I received a collection notice addressed to my old married name. Citibank said I owed $9,000. I wrote a note on the letter that this was not my account and sent it back to the collection agency. I also double-checked my credit report, which I print out once a year, and this account was nowhere to be found.
Then, yesterday, I received an actual statement from Citibank for this same account! I called the number on the statement. It turns out that someone did indeed open this account in 2003. The Social Security number is different but they had my phone number attached to it somehow. Will I continue to get letters asking for payment?
I have tried on numerous occasions to have incorrect information removed but this has never worked. Part of the problem is that my old name was a very common one, so all these different addresses and phone numbers show up. I even have two accounts that are not mine on my credit and they just won't take them off. Luckily, they aren't past due — they just aren't mine. What's the best way to deal with wrong information? –Isabella
How frustrating! Here you are, taking the correct steps to resolve this identification snafu, yet it continues to occur. In fact, it's getting worse. Now you're presented with a huge collection agency debt that may or may not wind up on your credit report? Here's how to fix that — and the other falsehoods.
First know that the Fair Credit Reporting Act states very clearly that only correct and timely data may appear on your consumer credit reports. Therefore, purging information that should not be listed — which includes accounts that you never opened — should be fairly easy.
In many cases it is, too. Just contact one of the three major bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian) and dispute the error using its online system. Upon receipt, it will notify the other two bureaus and the matter will be investigated. During that time, each bureau will remove the account in question from its reports. If you're correct, the erroneous information shouldn't show up again.
That's what's supposed to happen, anyway. As you've discovered, it's not always so simple. The main reason is that the credit bureaus do not exactly go out of their way to conduct extensive detective work. With the massive number of disputes they get, that would be impossible.
So what usually happens is that the bureaus rely on a computerized system to contact the subscriber (the creditor that is sending the information to them). If your name, address, phone number or enough digits in your Social Security number are similar to the disputed information, the subscriber may “verify” that it's yours, and re-report the account.
Obviously, there is a serious glitch in the investigation process, and (unfortunately) it is up to the individual to fight. So, put on your gloves.
Contact Citibank and the collector. In a letter to both, explain that the account is not yours. Circle and highlight the false Social Security number, and write: “As you can see, this is not my SSN, nor is this my account. Cease all collection activity immediately. If you do not, I will file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and take legal action if necessary. Please confirm by XX date that you have received this letter and will not pursue the matter further.” Copy the Federal Trade Commission, include a copy of the bill, and send it all certified mail, return receipt requested.
Contact the creditors that aren't yours. It is crucial that only your information is on your personal credit reports. Even if the status of those accounts is good now, they could go downhill.
Write to the creditors who are adding other cardholders' accounts to your reports. Demand they stop, include anything that substantiates your claim, and tell them you expect your credit file to be free of that activity pronto. Copy the credit bureaus.
In just over 30 days, check your reports again. Hopefully, the situation will be resolved. If not, you've got enough evidence to dispute it with the bureaus, with a “CLEARLY THESE ARE NOT MY ACCOUNTS” message.
If you still experience resistance, start punching hard. The National Association of Consumer Advocates can help you find a lawyer who works with these issues. It's not OK that you have to spend so much time and energy on this — so stand up and cause trouble!
Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.