NEW YORK (MainStreet ) — By far the most questions we receive from readers for our weekly credit Q&A series concern credit report disputes. And while we’ve previously covered the option of contesting information appearing on a credit report, we’ve never actually delved into what happens after a consumer has done so. That is, until now.
The infographic above illustrates how a dispute is handled by the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. As previously reported, the big three furnish varying reports to a vast majority of the nation’s lenders.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), both the credit reporting company and the information provider (typically the lender or collections agency) are responsible for investigating and/or correcting inaccurate or incomplete information appearing on a person’s credit report, and are given 30 days to do so.
But careful observers will be quick to notice that, under current operating procedures, this investigation is handled by the lender, not the bureau who is being notified of the dispute.
“We go back on behalf of the consumer to the source to verify the records are being reported accurately,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian. “They let us know if the information should be updated or removed.”
The process, which Griffins says typically takes a week to 10 days to process instead of the 30 days permitted under federal law, seems an adequate way to address simple factual errors, like a misspelled name or incorrect Social Security number. But what happens when an issue is complex, or worse, when a dispute is related to difficult-to-prove factors such as whether a consumer owes the lender to begin with. (The second, incidentally, is what drives a majority of the questions we get on the subject.)
Griffin says that consumers can aid such cases by sending any documentation they may have showing that the information should be removed to the credit bureaus directly. He also says Experian tries to minimize the number of subjective disputes it encounters by making sure it deals only with reputable lenders. (And not just anyone can report information to the major credit bureaus .)
Ultimately, however, “If you disagree with the lender’s response, you can add a statement of dispute to the report,” Griffin says.
James B. Fishman, a New York attorney who specializes in consumer law, says a statement of dispute, also a provision of FCRA, can be up to 100 words and can say whatever a consumer would like it to. (For instance, the bill was sent to the wrong address, the payments were for a service you never agreed to, etc.)
But consumer advocates say consumers need to be aware that adding a line to your credit report doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a new lender will discharge the information when considering you for the loan.
Evan Hendricks, author of Credit Scores & Credit Reports, agrees that consumers can increase their chances of success by formally documenting the dispute via certified letters to both the credit bureaus and the lender in question.
Beyond that, “if you want to force the issue, you can file a lawsuit against the lender,” Fishman says. “If you win, [the information] has to come off.”
Hendricks says these types of cases can take months or years, depending on how complex the situation is. (As a point of reference, most negative information takes seven years to age off of your credit report if you do nothing to contest it.) He also says that lawyers aren’t apt to take a case where clients have little to no documentation on hand to prove they don’t owe a bill or that information is otherwise inaccurate.
However, Hendricks also says that those who do have documentation and are faced with a discrepancy that will do serious damage to their score for an extended period of time shouldn’t shy away from taking legal action, especially since many experienced attorneys will arrange for their fees to be paid as part of a settlement or trial decision.
“If the situation is very serious, cut right to the chase and find a lawyer who specializes in FCRA to represent you,” Hendricks says. He suggests visiting the National Association of Consumer Advocates’ website to find one suited to dealing with these types of disputes.
Want to know more about how the credit bureaus work? Find out in MainStreet’s look at who is behind your credit score.
—Jeanine Skowronski is staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach her by email at Skowronski.email@example.com. or follow her on Twitter at @JeanineSko.