Getting denied a loan, job, or apartment because of information on your credit report can be disappointing. Getting denied because of information on your credit report that isn’t correct is downright aggravating. That’s why it’s important to review your credit reports for errors regularly. We’re going to dig into these topics in more detail, but remember: Clearpoint does not lend money, offer legal advice, or consult on tax or credit repair matters.
One of your legal rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is that the information in your credit report must be correct, complete, and verifiable. Negative information, such as a late payment or bankruptcy, also must be removed within seven to 10 years (depending on the data).
When you see something that’s incorrect, incomplete, unverifiable, or outdated, you can file a dispute with the credit bureaus or data furnisher (such as a lender or collections agency) to get your report corrected. We’ve covered the basics of the credit report dispute process before. Here we will discuss what is perhaps a surprising, and less frequently discussed, topic—the differences between phone, mail, and online credit disputes. We’ll also touch on the differences between types of credit reports.
Not All Methods are Created Equal
There are two big steps in the credit report dispute process where you as a consumer will make a choice. The first is deciding where to get your credit report(s). The second is deciding how to file a dispute. In both of these decisions, you’ll have a few options to select from, and how you proceed can have an impact on your outcome. We should point out that it’s likely you won’t run into much trouble, no matter which method you choose. But you have the right to know these important differences and how they could impact you down the road.
Choosing Where to Get Your Credit Report
The first step in reviewing your credit report is ordering a copy. You can get free copies of your credit reports from a variety of sources, including companies like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma*. You can also request a free copy of your report from each of the bureaus once every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com, by downloading and mailing a request form, or by calling the number associated with the site, 1-877-322-8228.
Experian also gives you free access to your credit report online, while TransUnion and Equifax sell access to their credit reports.
Arbitration Clauses with Some Purchased Reports
However, registering or buying a product from one of the credit bureaus could require you sign an arbitration clause and/or class action waiver. As a result, you might not be able to sue or join a class action lawsuit against the bureau.
The arbitration clause may extend to your right to sue the bureau if the incorrect information in your credit report isn’t corrected, which might be a reason to consider getting your credit report from a different source. You also might be able to send an opt-out letter to the bureaus saying you don’t agree to the arbitration clause, but you may need to do this within 30 to 60 days of creating your account. Remember, this isn’t legal advice; consult an attorney as needed.
Reviewing for Errors
Once you have copies of your reports, review them for inaccurate information, such as:
- Accounts that you didn’t open
- Incorrect debt amounts on a loan or collection account
- Outdated or incorrect personal information
When you find inaccurate or outdated information, you may want to file a dispute to correct it. Again, check out our guide for more specifics here.
Choosing How to Dispute Errors on Your Report
You’d hope the resolution of your dispute would be the same no matter which process you use (phone, mail, or online) but there could be a reason for using one of the options over the other.
For instance, Jeremy Golden, a consumer law attorney with Golden & Cardona-Loya, LLP in Chula Vista, California, recommends that people keep copies of the disputes they send to the bureaus. To this end, you may not want to initiate the dispute by phone. Instead, use the online systems (perhaps taking screenshots) or send your letters by certified mail.
“Online is certainly faster because you get the dispute into the credit bureaus’ systems much faster,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. However, he cautions that the online list of options you can choose from won’t necessarily match your situation. “In that case, a written dispute sent via the mail is a better option because it gives you more of an opportunity to free hand your dispute and logic behind why you’re challenging the item.”
What if you’re worried about having a drawn-out back and forth battle to get an incorrect piece of information off your reports and want the option to sue the bureau? (It happens.) Golden says as long as you keep records and don’t unwittingly agree to waive your rights to arbitration that, “no harm is done in disputing online rather than via mail.” The credit bureaus seem to agree.
David Blumberg, senior director of public relations for TransUnion wrote us and said, “Consumers do not waive any rights by disputing online vs. by mail. The only difference we would note between the two is that mail disputes take longer.”
Nancy Bistritz, director of public relations and communications for Equifax, also says filing a dispute online doesn’t require you to sign an arbitration agreement.
Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, agreed and made two important additional points: one about the increased risk of identity theft with mailed disputes and one about the documentation provided by online disputes. He said:
“The most important distinctions about disputing by mail are that it takes much longer and increases the risk of identity theft. When you mail a dispute you must allow time for the letter to arrive, often a week or more. You must include all of your identifying information along with identity verification and dispute documents in an envelope addressed to Experian. If the letter falls into the wrong hands, you are at much greater risk of identity theft.”
And elaborating on the online process, he added:
“Today, disputes submitted online are done so instantly through a secure, encrypted connection. You can upload all necessary documentation along with the dispute. The dispute and documents are then sent to the source of the information for processing. Dispute verification is provided to ensure a “paper trail,” which is a commonly cited reason to dispute by mail.”
It’s great to know that the bureaus have put these consumer protections in place. Still be careful about what you agree to when you register with one of the bureaus’ sites to use or purchase their products.
Bureau Contact Information
If you decide to file a dispute, here’s phone, mail, and online dispute information for each of the three bureaus.
Online, call 1-800-208-9232, or mail a dispute letter to
P.O. Box 9701
Allen, TX 75013
Online, call 1-866-349-5191, or mail a dispute letter to
Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
Online, call 1-800-916-8800, or mail a dispute letter to
Transunion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19022-2000
Regularly reviewing your credit reports could help you spot errors or identity theft and give you time to correct the mistakes before they impact an important decision related to your personal or financial life. Just be aware that all credit reports aren’t created equal, and you should carefully read terms and conditions for paid products. Also, remember that how you file a dispute may affect your timeline and record keeping. It’s likely best to avoid phone disputes, and opt for the mail or online processes. In the best-case scenarios, your disputes are quickly resolved. However, you want to keep records of everything you send, and you may want the option to take legal action if the mistakes aren’t corrected.
If you want to review your credit history and make a plan to pay off debt, a free credit counseling session might be the answer. Get started today with our team of certified counselors.
*Disclosure: Louis DeNicola also writes for Credit Karma