Your credit report is meant to be an accurate, detailed summary of your financial history — however, mistakes happen more often than you may think.
Whether it’s accounts that don’t actually belong to you or outdated derogatory information that’s still being reported, incorrect information could be bringing your score down unnecessarily.
Read on to learn how to remove erroneous information from your credit report — and some tips on how to handle those negative (but accurate) items that are dragging your score down.
Table of Contents
- How to remove negative items from your credit report yourself
- How to dispute accurate information in your credit report
- How to identify errors in your credit report
- How to remove negative items related to identity theft
How to remove negative items from your credit report yourself
First, it's important to know your rights when it comes to your credit history. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), credit bureaus and lenders must ensure that the information they report is accurate and truthful.
This means that, if you find mistakes in your credit report, you have the legal right to dispute them. And, if the bureaus find that the information you disputed doesn’t belong in your record or is outdated, they are obligated to remove it.
Common credit report errors include payments mistakenly labeled as late or closed accounts still listed as open. It's also possible for your report to include information from someone else, possibly someone with a similar name, Social Security number or identifying information.
Bear in mind that correct information cannot be removed from your credit report for at least seven years. So, if your score is low due to down because of accurate negative information, you’ll need to repair your credit over time by making payments on time and decreasing your overall amount of debt.
Here are some tips to help you repair your credit history:
1. Get a free copy of your credit report
It’s important to check your credit report frequently — at the very least annually, if not more often — to catch any irregularities early on.
Under federal law, you have the right to obtain a free credit report from all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) once a year. However, because of the pandemic, all three bureaus are offering free weekly reports through the end of 2022.
You can request yours through AnnualCreditReport.com, the only free credit report website authorized by the federal government. Make sure to check your reports from all three bureaus since each one can include different information from creditors and lenders.
You can also request them by:
Phone: (877) 322-8228
Mail: Download, print, and complete the request form and mail to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
Other ways to get your credit report
In addition to your annual report, you can request additional free copies if:
- You were denied credit, insurance or employment in the past 60 days based on your credit
- There are sudden changes in your credit limit or insurance coverage
- You’re receiving government benefits
- You're a victim of identity fraud
- You’re unemployed and/or will apply for employment within 60 days from the date of your request
To request additional copies, contact the bureaus directly. Here’s how to do it:
- Experian: Go to this page, select “Request my Credit Report” and follow the prompts. If you don’t qualify for a free copy, you’ll have to pay up to $12, plus tax.
- Equifax: Create a myEquifax account. Once your profile is set up, you can request a copy from your account page.
- Transunion: Create a TransUnion account. You may access your credit report once every 24 hours through your account.
For a more detailed guide on how to request copies, make sure to read our article on how to check your credit report.
2. File a dispute with the credit reporting agency
Once you have your report, look through each account and see if there are creditors or accounts you don’t recognize. It’s also important to check whether older derogatory items (items that are more than seven years after the original delinquency date) are still being reported.
If you do find errors in your reports, dispute them directly with the reporting bureau through its website or by mail. This will prompt an investigation on the bureau's part.
Bear in mind that you have to dispute the entry with each agency to make sure the removal is complete across the board.
How to file a dispute online
Each bureau — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — has a section dedicated to walking consumers through the online dispute process. Once you create an account, you can file as many disputes as you need and check their status for free.
How to file a dispute letter
You can also send a dispute letter to the bureaus detailing any inaccuracies you've found in your credit file. When writing your letter, provide documentation that supports your claim and be precise about the information you are challenging. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends enclosing a copy of your report with the error circled or highlighted.
Depending on the information being disputed, these are some of the documents you can provide to help aid the investigation:
- Credit card or bank statements
- Copies of checks
- Letters from lenders certifying mistakes
- Pay stubs
- W-2 forms
- Utility bills
- Proof of identity (birth certificate, driver's license, passport, for example)
- Police reports (in the case of identity theft)
Mail the letter by certified mail and request a return receipt. This will certify that the reporting agency received the letter, and you will receive a signature as evidence. Keep the certified mail signature, along with copies of your letter and any enclosed documents.
Dispute letters should be mailed to:
Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
Include this dispute form with your letter.
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion Consumer Solutions
Consumer Dispute Center
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
Include this dispute form with your letter.
3. File a dispute directly with the creditor
You can also contact the company that provided the information to the bureau in the first place, such as a bank or credit card issuer. Lenders are required to investigate and respond to all disputes.
Remember to include as much documentation as possible to support your claim. Including a copy of your report marking the error is also helpful.
The address you should mail the letter to is usually listed on your report, under the negative item you'd like to dispute. You can also contact the lender directly to verify the mailing address and the documents you should include.
If the lender finds that it was mistaken or cannot prove that the debt actually belongs to you, it will notify the bureau and ask it to update your file.
4. Review the claim results
Reporting agencies and lenders usually take around 30 days to investigate disputes. Once they make a decision, they must notify you within five days of completing their review. The notice will inform you if the disputed item was found to be inaccurate or not.
If the disputed information was, in fact, inaccurate, the bureau must update or delete the item. They should include a free copy of your file if the dispute results in a change.
If the bureau or lender finds that the disputed information isn't a mistake, you can file an additional claim. Review your initial claim for any errors and correct those. If possible, you should include additional documents to support your request, which can help the bureau evaluate any information it might have missed the first time around.
5. Hire a credit repair service
Disputing errors can be time consuming, especially if your history has several mistakes or if you were a victim of identity theft. Reputable credit repair companies — such as Credit Saint, Lexington Law or Sky Blue — may be viable solutions if your file is riddled with inaccuracies.
Credit repair services can help you dispute inaccurate negative information and handle creditor negotiations. However, if you decide to hire a credit repair agency, remember there are consumer protection laws that regulate how they operate and what they can do. The Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA) establishes the following regarding credit repair services:
- They cannot provide false or misleading information concerning a person’s credit status and identification
- They must provide a detailed description of the services they provide
- They cannot charge for their services until they have been completed (although most of them do charge a small initial work fee)
- There must be a written contract detailing the services they’ll provide, the time frame in which these services will be provided and the total cost for them
- They cannot promise to remove truthful information from your record before the term set by law (seven years for most derogatory items, ten years for some bankruptcies)
- You have three days in which to review the contract and cancel without penalty
Before signing up with one of these companies, it’s important to understand what they can and cannot do. For example, any company that promises to remove accurate negative items or create a new credit identity for you is most likely engaging in illegal practices or a scam. Check out our picks for best credit repair companies for more information.
How to dispute accurate information in your credit report
Accurate items in your record can't be removed before the term set by law expires, which is seven years for most negative items. For example, if you truly missed payments on your credit card, your dispute to remove that information will be denied. However, the information will automatically fall off your credit report seven years from the time you missed the payments.
If you do have valid negative items on record, here are some things that might help:
1. Send a request for “goodwill deletion”
Writing a goodwill letter can be a viable option for people who are otherwise in good standing with creditors. If you've taken steps to pay down your overall debt and have been paying your monthly bills on time, you might be able to convince your creditor to “forgive” the late payment.
While there's no guarantee that the creditor will delete the derogatory information, this strategy does get results for some. Goodwill letters are most successful for one-off problems, such as a single missed payment. However, they are not effective for debtors with a history of late payments, defaults or collections.
When writing the letter:
- Take responsibility for the issue that lead to the derogatory mark
- Explain why you didn't pay the account
- If you can, point out good payment history before the incident
2. Work with a credit counseling agency
Several non-profit credit counseling organizations, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), can help dispute inaccurate information on your record.
The NFCC can provide financial counseling, help review your credit history and help you organize your budget or place you in a debt management plan free of charge. It also offers counseling for homeownership, bankruptcy and foreclosure prevention.
As always, be wary of companies that overpromise, make claims that are “too good to be true” and ask for payment before rendering services.
When looking for a legitimate credit counselor, the FTC advises consumers to check if they have any complaints with:
- Your state’s Attorney General
- Local consumer protection agencies
- The United States Trustee program
3. Negotiate a pay-for-delete
Pay-for-delete is a negotiation strategy in which you offer to pay your debt (partly or in full) and, in exchange, the collection agency agrees to remove the derogatory item from your file. This process is meant to remove negative items that are correctly reported, such as missed credit card payments or loan defaults.
In a nutshell, you would send a letter to the collection agency or creditor notifying them that you're prepared to pay off the account as long as the information is retracted from your report.
Note that, in most cases, this tactic is a long-shot — collection agencies are not required to respond to your request if the information reported is indeed accurate. If they do, they might send a written offer confirming that they will retract the item and stating their preferred payment methods.
Are pay-for-delete negotiations worth it?
Since collection agencies want to get back as much money as possible, paying the debt may be enough incentive for them to remove the negative entry. However, pay-for-delete is not a dependable solution, and it falls in a legal gray area.
Collection agencies are required by law to report accurate information, just like reporting companies and creditors. While you can certainly request it, a collection agency has the right to refuse your request. They may agree to label the collection as paid (if you did in fact pay it), but they won't delete the collection entry itself.
Also, note that pay-for-delete agreements might not improve your score. The most recent credit score models (FICO 9 and VantageScore 4.0) don't factor in paid collection accounts when calculating your score. This means that fully paying the account will have the same effect as negotiating a pay-for-delete. However, bear in mind that unpaid collections will still impact your score.
How to identify errors in your credit report
Common credit report errors
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, these are the most common errors consumers find on their credit history:
- Wrong name, address or phone number
- Accounts from someone with a similar name
- New credit accounts opened by someone who stole your identity
Incorrect account status
- Accounts wrongfully labeled as open, past due or delinquent
- Accounts that wrongfully listed you as the owner instead of authorized user
- Wrong date for the last payment received, date the account was opened or delinquency status
- Same debt listed multiple times
- Information that is not removed, despite already being disputed and corrected
- Accounts that are listed multiple times, with different creditors
- Incorrect current balance
- Incorrect credit limit
Negative credit report entries that impact your score the most
Most accurate negative items stay in your file for around seven years. Fortunately, their impact diminishes as time goes by, even if they are still listed on the report.
For example, a collection from a few years ago will carry less weight than a recent one — especially if there aren’t any new negative items in your history. Improving your debt management after receiving a derogatory mark can show lenders you're unlikely to repeat the issue and help increase your score.
These are the most common items that can lower your credit score:
Multiple hard inquiries
Multiple hard credit checks over a short amount of time are a red flag for lenders, as it tells them that you are applying for credit too often and, potentially, being denied.
However, there are some exceptions to this. For example, if you’re looking to buy a home and want to compare interest rates between several lenders, you can. FICO and VantageScore, the two most commonly used credit scoring models, give consumers a window of around 14 to 45 to compare rates — this is known as rate shopping. All credit inquiries done between this period of time will show up on your file as one item.
Payment history is perhaps the most influential factor when calculating credit scores. If you are late for several payment cycles or not paying at all, it will significantly hurt your score. Paying a few days late won't necessarily impact your score since creditors won’t notify the bureaus immediately. However, if you’re late 30 days or more, it will probably go on your record.
Foreclosure can also cause a credit score to drop substantially. According to FICO, a score can drop up to 100 points from a foreclosure, depending on the consumer’s starting score. Foreclosures stay on your record for seven years.
Charge-offs occur when a creditor has stopped expecting a debt to be paid. This can happen if a debt isn’t paid within 180 days — although some creditors could charge off a debt in as little as 90 days. Charge-offs can cause your credit score to drop 100 points or more.
Repossessions can lower your score by around 100 points or more, mainly due to the series of missed payments that lead up to it.
If a collection agency or debtor sues you for payment, a court might issue a judgment against you, mandating that you pay the debt in addition to other fees and attorney costs. The impact from a judgment can vary, but it could lower your score by more than 100 points.
A collection occurs when the original creditor hires an outside firm to collect payment. These fall under payment history, and can easily knock off more than 100 points from your score.
How do errors impact your credit score?
Your credit score is calculated using different models such as VantageScore and FICO, the two most widely used credit-scoring models. Each model has its proprietary metrics and criteria. However, both use data from the major credit reporting agencies to generate your score.
Both scoring models also consider similar factors when calculating your score. These include your total credit usage and length of credit history, for example. But your payment history is the most important factor when determining your credit score.
Your payment history alone makes up around 35% of your FICO score and 42% of your VantageScore 4.0. Since payment history is so significant, a single inaccurate late payment could impact your score considerably. According to FICO, if your report has a 90-day missed payment, your score could drop by as much as 180 points.
How to remove negative items related to identity theft
If you believe you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, you should first file a dispute with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov or by phone at 1-877-438-4338. You should also file a police report.
After you report the incident, make sure to take the following steps:
- Request a copy of your credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com
- Look out for unauthorized transactions or new accounts that don’t belong to you
- Contact the credit bureaus through phone or mail to dispute any credit information that doesn’t belong to you
- Place a security freeze and fraud alert on your credit report
- Contact creditors to close compromised accounts
- Consider subscribing to an identity theft protection or credit monitoring service
The impact of identity theft on your credit report
Identity theft — when someone steals your personal information and uses it to open new financial accounts — can wreak havoc on your credit. These new accounts show up on your credit record and hurt your score, especially if they’re delinquent or if the identity thief applied for several in a short amount of time.
Cleaning up your credit after identity theft can take anywhere from several months to years. The longer it takes you to realize someone stole your identity, the more difficult it will be to undo the damage. This is why keeping a close eye on your report and learning how to protect yourself from identity theft will help you to keep your information safe.
Avoid the following strategies when trying to repair your credit
While the following methods can be tempting options when trying to repair bad credit, they can often cause more harm than good. Stay away from the following:
Closing a line of credit that is already behind on payments
Closing a card that’s behind on payments doesn't eliminate the debt. In fact, it can lower your credit score by increasing your debt-to-credit ratio, also known as credit utilization percentage. This ratio represents the amount of credit you're currently using divided by the total amount of credit you have available.
For example, if you have two credit cards, each with a maximum credit limit of $5,000, your total available credit is $10,000. Owing $3,000 on one card and $2,000 on the other would mean you're using 50% of your total available credit.
To improve your credit score, experts recommend keeping your credit utilization under 30%. Following the example mentioned above, that would mean using only $3,000 or less per cycle.
If you close one of your credit cards instead of paying it, you'll have less available credit. Creditors evaluate your debt-to-credit ratio when you apply for new cards or loans. If your ratio is over that threshold, they might classify you as a high-risk borrower, offer you less attractive interest rates or even deny you credit altogether.
Filing for bankruptcy
Bankruptcy should be considered a last resort — it can seriously damage your score and hinder your ability to get loans, mortgages or credit for years after your debts are discharged.
There are two types of bankruptcies available for individuals: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. A third type, Chapter 11, is meant for businesses.
Under a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, a court mandates the liquidation of your assets in order to pay your outstanding debt. A trustee is then appointed to review your finances and sell off any additional asset that isn’t protected under bankruptcy exemptions.
With a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, on the other hand, you’re allowed to keep your assets as long as you complete a court-mandated repayment plan meant to pay your highest priority, secured debt.
Impact of bankruptcy on your credit report
Filing for bankruptcy can lower your score by around 200 points or more. It will also negatively impact your chances of getting new lines of credit or loans for several years until your credit history substantially improves.
If you file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the derogatory mark will remain on record for up to 10 years; for Chapter 13, it's seven years.
Credit Report Dispute FAQ
Can you erase bad credit overnight?
The short answer is no. Fixing bad credit is a time-consuming process that often takes months. It involves contacting credit agencies and lenders to dispute inaccurate information, and they can take up to 30 days to respond to your request. They may also ask for more documentation to validate your dispute, further prolonging the process. Additionally, note that accurate negative items cannot be deleted from your report and will remain on your record for at least seven years.
What information can't be disputed from your credit report?
How long does bankruptcy stay on your credit report?
How long do hard inquiries stay on your credit report?
How long do late payments stay on your credit report?
Summary of Money’s Guide for Getting Negative Items Removed from Your Credit Report
- Order a copy of your credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com and search for inaccurate information, like missed payments or accounts that don't belong to you.
- If you find any, file a dispute online or through the mail with the credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
- You should also notify your bank or credit card issuer. They can help you verify that the information in your report is, in fact, erroneous and notify the bureau.
- Be on the lookout for a response from the bureau. It should arrive in around a month or less. If they accept your dispute, request your credit report again to make sure the negative information was removed.
- If your report is riddled with errors or you're finding the dispute process difficult, consider hiring a credit repair company.