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HOW TO DISPUTE, FIX MISTAKES ON CREDIT REPORTS

Published Mar. 11, 2007

Have you ever been horrified to discover errors on your credit report? Consider these tips for handling such mistakes:

1 Reflect on the ways errors can creep in. Sometimes automated processes take over and creditors send inaccurate information about people's bill-paying habits to one of the major credit bureaus. In other cases, people's identities accidentally get mixed up at the credit bureau when a staffer enters a Social Security number incorrectly. And sometimes people with fabulous credit histories become victims of blatant identity theft.

2 Check out your credit report. Examine your credit report carefully. Order free annual reports from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling toll-free 1-877-322-8228.

3 Contact the credit bureau first. If you find mistakes in your report, take the matter up with the credit-reporting agency immediately. Send a letter that includes your complete name and address, a description of each item you dispute, an explanation of why you dispute it and a request for deletion or correction of the information.

4 Keep good records. Along with your letter, enclose copies of documents that support your position and a photocopy of your credit report with the items in question circled. Send it by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the credit bureau received. Keep records of correspondence and phone calls.

5 Go to the source. Contact the creditor that's attached to the bad information. Send the creditor photocopies of everything you sent the credit bureau with a letter that says, "I'm disputing this with you, too." Once you've taken this step, the creditor should include a notice of your dispute each time it reports the information to a credit bureau.

6 Understand how mistakes should be handled. If the information is found to be inaccurate, the creditor must notify the major credit bureaus. Disputed information that cannot be verified should be deleted from your file.

7 Take a deep breath. It can take months to clear up mistakes on credit reports.

8 Be alert for telltale signs of identity theft. When you review your credit report, you might notice unusual details that may not affect your credit rating but should raise eyebrows. If you spot an unfamiliar post office box address in your name, a stranger may have hijacked your identity to create that address.

9 Do you need legal help? The National Association of Consumer Advocates (http://naca.net) can be a good place to start in finding legal assistance.

10 Think you've been a victim of identity theft? File fraud alerts with all three credit bureaus: Equifax (toll-free 1-800-525-6285, www.equifax.com), Experian (toll-free 1-888-397-3742, www.experian.com) and TransUnion (1-800-680-7289, www.transunion.com). File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (toll-free 1-877-438-4338), and close all accounts that were opened fraudulently.

Laura T. Coffey (laura@tentips.org)

Sources: Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com); Experian (www.experian.com); Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov/idtheft)