Published August 17, 2016 | Updated February 25, 2022
Credit bureaus — the organizations that calculate credit scores — receive information about your payment history from your credit card lenders, landlord or mortgage company, and others you do business with. Although they aim for accuracy, sometimes mistakes happen — and these mistakes can have serious consequences for your ability to take out new lines of credit.
Thankfully, reviewing and correcting your credit score is a pretty simple process.
How to Check Your Credit Report and Credit Score
To find out whether your credit report is accurate, request a copy of it from one or each of the three major credit bureaus using AnnualCreditReport.com. You won’t have to pay for this service, since federal law requires credit bureaus to release your report for free once a year. You are also entitled to a free credit report if you:
- Have had your identity stolen
- Have been denied for a credit card or loan
- Are receiving public assistance
- Are unemployed but seeking work
Banks and credit unions — even some credit cards — may offer eligible members free credit score monitoring. Typically, you’ll find this feature in your online banking or mobile app. FICO lets you estimate your score for free (though getting an exact score will cost you.
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Credit Bureaus Calculate Your Credit Scores Differently
If you compare your credit scores from the three big credit bureaus, you may find they differ slightly. This is normal. Companies you do business with can pick and choose where they want to report information, so not every credit bureau will have all of your information.
Additionally, each credit bureau calculates your credit score differently using their own formula. To know if a bureau’s information is correct, you’ll have to check your credit report (not just the score) to see what debts, credit lines, and payments they list.
How Often to Check Your Credit Report for Errors
You should check your credit report between one and three times per year. Your report gets updated often as businesses report on your debts and payments, and if errors get recorded, you’ll want to correct them quickly. Checking often also helps you catch signs of identity theft.
You may want to set up a time each year that you review your credit report. (Early January is a good time.) You should also check your credit report if:
- You’re planning to apply for a new credit card
- You’re planning to apply for a loan or mortgage
- You’ve been denied for a credit card or loan you believe you should have qualified for
- You’re actively taking steps to improve your credit
- You have (or suspect you have) been a victim of identity theft
By checking your credit report regularly, you’re taking control of your credit.
When checking your credit report, you may find erroneous or out of date information. For instance, one common error is mixing up your account with the account of someone with a similar name as yours (such as John C. Smith and John R. Smith). Other common errors you should correct include:
- Incorrect addresses or phone numbers
- Closed accounts showing as open
- Seeing the same debt twice
- Accounts with incorrect balances
- Incorrect credit limits
You may also find some small errors that are not worth correcting. For instance, as long as your current address is correct, it doesn’t matter if a former address is outdated. Instead, prioritize your current information.
All items on a credit report have a certain lifespan. For instance, most late or missed payments remain on your credit report for seven years. For other items like bankruptcies, it may depend on the type of arrangement you have. Some positive things, like fully paid closed accounts or repaid student loans, can stay on your credit report as much as 10 years.
What does your credit report say about you?
If you find errors in your credit report, start by contacting the credit reporting company. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises writing a letter and sending it by certified mail so you will have a receipt of when you sent your letter. (The CFPB also provides a free letter template you can use.)
However, you can also call the credit bureau’s customer service line or use online reporting methods. Regardless of how you contact the credit bureau, you will need the following information:
- An explanation of the error
- A copy of the credit report where you found the error
- The correct information that should be on your report
- Any supporting documentation
- Proof of your identity
You should check your credit report between one and three times per year.
Once the credit bureau receives your letter, they have 30 days to examine your claim. If they decide to make a correction, they’ll update your file and report their error to other credit bureaus.
You should also reach out to the company who reported the incorrect information to the credit bureau. For example, if your credit card lender reports that you missed a payment you actually made, you can call their customer service line to correct the error. This keeps the company from reporting the error to the credit bureau again in the future.
Have relevant information like account numbers, receipts, and transaction numbers ready when you call. If the company decides they have made a mistake, they will contact the credit bureau with corrections.
All student loans remain on your credit report for 10 years after they’re paid off.
A hard inquiry is when a lender investigates your credit report to determine whether you’ll secure new line of credit with them, such as an auto loan or mortgage.
Even though hard inquiries hurt your credit score temporarily, you shouldn’t dispute them. Their impact on your credit score is very small compared to other factors, plus they expire after two years.
The one time it makes sense to dispute a hard inquiry is when it’s the result of fraud. If someone uses your identity to try to open new lines of credit in your name, then you can start by reporting the identity theft to the FTC. Then you can contact the credit bureau to have the hard inquiry removed.
A credit check that doesn’t affect your credit is called a soft inquiry. You can ask your potential creditor or lender what kind of pull they will use.
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Removing Late Payments
Lenders are required to provide accurate information to the credit reporting agencies, including delinquent payments, but you may be able to contact your lender to communicate any hardships that led to your delinquency.
You can only remove a bankruptcy from your credit report if it contains inaccurate information or was the result of an error.
Removing Closed Accounts
If you’re removing a closed account because it contains inaccurate information, simply contact the credit bureau and ask to have the information removed.
If you want to remove an account because of negative information, your best option is to write a “goodwill letter” to the credit bureau asking to have the information removed. Whether the information is removed will be up to the bureau, but it doesn’t hurt to state your case politely. You’re more likely to have an account removed if it is older and your more recent credit history is strong.
Removing Student Loans
All student loans remain on your credit report for 10 years after they’re paid off. Generally, repaid student loans help your credit score because they represent a long, steady repayment history — so if you have a clean record, you won’t want to remove them prematurely.
Federal Student Loans
If you’re behind on your federal student loan payments, you may be able to remove the delinquency note on your credit report by rehabilitating the loan. Otherwise, delinquent student loans will lower your credit score and the negative record will remain on your credit report for seven years.
Rehabilitation allows you to make more manageable payments for a short suspension period before going back to a regular payment schedule. After that, previous unpaid or late payments to that loan will be taken off your credit report. You should contact your student loan lender to begin the rehabilitation process.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans are handled by your specific lender, who may not offer the same options as other private lenders or federal student loan lenders. If you are delinquent on your private student loans, contact your lender to determine what options you have.
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You can only remove a bankruptcy from your credit report if it contains inaccurate information or was the result of an error or identity theft.
If your credit report contains a legitimate bankruptcy, it’s more effective to focus on improving your current financial standing than trying to remove the bankruptcy. Investigate ways to build credit without a credit card and other ways to improve your credit score. You may even want to investigate nonprofit credit counseling to learn new ways of managing your money and your debt.
The most common type of bankruptcy is Chapter 7, where your debt is written off. This type of bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years. Chapter 13 bankruptcy drops off your credit report sooner because, as part of the bankruptcy agreement, you continue paying on your debt for 3 to 5 years after filing your claim.
Both voluntary repossessions and involuntary repossessions remain on your credit report for seven years.
The best way to handle a repossession is to negotiate with your lender by offering to settle your outstanding balance. In some cases, this may raise your credit score even though the repossession will remain on your credit report. That’s because this account will appear as fully paid instead of unpaid.
If you have extenuating circumstances (such as serious long-term illness or job loss) that led to your repossession, provide your lender with documentation of these events when you speak to them.
Repossessions can negatively impact your credit score since they suggest a poor payment history. Both voluntary repossessions — where you willingly turn over your vehicle to your lender — and involuntary repossessions remain on your credit report for seven years.
The one time it makes sense to dispute a hard inquiry is when it’s the result of fraud.
If an eviction shows on your credit report, it can be difficult to remove. One strategy is to contact your landlord or property manager before it shows up and try to settle the outstanding debt. In some cases, they may not report your eviction in exchange for a partial or full payment. They may even be willing to negotiate a payment plan.
Generally, evictions remain on your credit report for seven years. As a record of nonpayment, they can have a strong, negative impact on your credit score. However, not all landlords or property managers report evictions to credit bureaus. If you’ve been evicted, check to see if it has been noted on your credit report.
Removing Child Support
Like other unpaid accounts, you cannot remove missed child support payments from your credit report. Finding a way to bring these accounts back into good standing is your best bet. Paying off the overdue balance will not remove the late payment notation from your credit history, but it may raise your credit score.
Do Credit Repair Services Really Work?
Credit repair companies purport to help their customers improve credit scores for a fee. Although you may find it more convenient to work with a credit repair company, they don’t do anything you can’t do for yourself.
Banks and credit unions — even some credit cards — may offer eligible members free credit score monitoring.
While some credit repair companies are legitimate businesses, others are scams. Some signs of a scam include demanding full payment upfront or encouraging you to dispute negative information you know is correct. Another is if the company offers to remove things from your credit report for a price. This is known as pay-for-delete and no credit repair company has the authority to make changes like this.
If you choose to work with a credit repair company, investigate its claims carefully before committing any money to their service.
Your credit report is an important part of your financial life. As the basis for your credit score, it’s central to proving your creditworthiness. It’s alarming to discover inaccurate information in such an important record, but thankfully correcting these errors is a simple process. By checking your credit report regularly, you’re taking control of your credit and ensuring it will be ready when you need it for whatever big financial move you make next.