You can pay a credit repair company to fix your credit, but if you're willing to invest your time instead of your cash then you can do it yourself without having to pay a professional. The only questions you need to know before you get started are how much your time is worth to you, and how comfortable you are with initiating and managing multiple credit profile related contacts via phone and email. You will also need to be comfortable with reading and writing quasi-legal documents. You can find example correspondence online which can help you with this.
Step 1: Obtain Your Credit Reports
Your credit score is based on a combination of factors and information which is reported about you by 3rd parties to the 3 major credit reporting agencies. The major agencies we are concerned with are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These three companies are the ones who are responsible for publishing information about you onto your credit report, however they are not the ones responsible for generating the information. A creditor, a collection agency or another company (known as data furnishers) will tell Experian, Equifax and TransUnion what to publish about you, and then the credit bureaus will publish it. They do not perform a thorough investigation into the legitimacy of the information when they initially report it. Only when it is discovered and disputed by you will it be investigated, at which point it may have been damaging your credit for months or years. It is also very common for information to be different on each of your three credit reports, which is like playing Russian roulette every time your credit is pulled if you don't fix all three at the same time. The reason is because you never know which report your potential landlord, employer or loan provider is going to pull. Let me give you an example:
- You have never checked your credit reports or felt the need to do so, however 2 years ago a credit card account was fraudulently opened in your name, maxed out and never paid on. You have never heard anything about it. The credit card company which was defrauded only reports payment information to Equifax and TransUnion, not to Experian. You have previously been approved for a car loan from your bank about 9 months ago, so you assume your score is good, however you are turned down in the final stages of your employment application and receive a form in the mail stating that a consumer report was used in the negative determination of your employment application. That means that even though your bank pulled your Experian information to verify your credit worthiness for your car loan, your potential employer used Equifax or Transunion and assumed the fraudulent negative credit card entry was valid.
Situations similar to the above are very common, and whether you are turned down for a loan, a credit card application, a job or an apartment it is a huge disruption to your plans and can be a major stress inducing event. Go and check your credit reports right now and then once a month from here on out in order to nip this potential problem in the bud.
The first step to take is to simply obtain a credit report from each of the agencies above. Legally you are allowed to do this for free once per year and also every time you are denied credit or suffer another qualifying negative event based on the results of a consumer report. To get your free reports go to annualcreditreport.com and follow the instructions to obtain your report. This is the official government website for obtaining your free credit reports, and it does not require a credit card or any kind of subscription or trial. Some people are not able to receive their reports from annualcreditreport.com due to problems verifying their identity or other reasons. If you are unable to obtain your reports from annualcreditreport.com, you can either search online for credit report providers or you can contact the credit bureaus directly yourself. Typically you can find providers online which will charge you $1 for your first month of access to your credit reports and to a credit monitoring service, with cost rising to about $30 per month thereafter. Remember, it's free for you if you can get your reports from annualcreditreport.com, so that is definitely your first choice. If you can't get them there try a paid provider or contact the bureaus directly either online or by mail and persuade them to provide you with a copy of your report. I always send mail certified, signature required, with a tracking number - and I highly advise you do the same. Keeping a detailed record of all of your communications with each entity you will be contacting is of the utmost importance to your success. The dates of your mailings and of the correspondence you receive as a result are extremely important. Below are the web addresses for the credit bureaus - search their site or search online for instructions for requesting access to your credit report if you are unable to do so through annualcreditreport.com.
So, just to be clear:
- annualcreditreport.com - official site for obtaining your credit reports - go here first
- Experian.com - Equifax.com - TransUnion.com; contact directly if needed
OK, I've received my credit reports in the mail or I've accessed them online - now what?
Step 2: Reviewing Your Credit Reports for Accuracy
Once you receive your reports you will need to review them for accuracy. Check each one carefully. There are several sections you will need to review and each one contains important information about you which will be checked by employers, landlords, utility companies, your cell phone provider and of course, potential creditors and others. Credit reports from the three agencies each look slightly different, but are generally composed of sections similar to these:
- Personal Profile: This section contains your personal information, such as your legal name, your current and previous addresses, your employment history and your birth date.
- Credit Summary: A snapshot of your credit, including how many accounts have been opened in your name and their total balance. Reported delinquencies will be listed here as well.
- Public Records: The odds are that you likely don't have any public records listed on your report, but they are very common. Mistakes in this area of your report are also fairly common and need to be disputed immediately. This type of information includes bankruptcy, tax lien, court records, judgements and child support.
- Credit Inquiries: Any company you have given permission to review your credit file (called a hard inquiry) will be listed here for two years. More than 3 inquiries listed in this section can lower your credit score. If you see companies listed in this section that you have not authorized to pull your credit, then they need to be removed. If you personally check your own credit (such as through a paid provider or credit monitoring service like referenced above) your credit score will not be affected. This type of inquiry is known a soft inquiry. Typical listings in this section include lenders, and potential or former employers and landlords.
- Account History: This is the specific account information for all accounts opened in your name which are reported to a credit reporting agency. This information can be positive or negative, and collectively has the biggest impact on your credit rating. A large amount of inaccurate information can be found on some people's credit reports in this section. Positive information reported about you will remain on your report indefinitely, while negative information will remain for 7 - 10 years from the date that the account was closed, or the date you last made a payment on or acknowledged the alleged debt.
- The contact information for all the companies who are listing information about you will also be found in this section. These addresses are where you will be sending your dispute letters if you choose to mail them versus filing online (recommended).
The above sections will comprise the majority of your credit reports. As stated before, go through them very carefully. Pay special attention to the alleged amounts that you owe, the payment dates and the names of the companies which are reporting the negative information. Take note of whether or not it is the original creditor or a debt collector as this will have an effect on the wording of the letters you will be sending out, and look at the account creation dates. In short, go through and verify that every single datapoint which is being reported about you on that credit report is accurate. Make notations of what you believe to be incorrect, reconcile this information with your records and if it is not exactly the same, then it may be being reported incorrectly and having a negative effect on your credit profile.
Step 3: First Contact
Now that you have reviewed your credit reports the fun part starts. You need to take all of the information which you want to be removed from your report and begin writing letters to address those issues. You can put multiple issues on each letter, however I never send more than 3 issues per letter to any agency and I recommend you don't either. You will want to send a letter to each of the credit bureaus which specifically details the reasons the information should be removed from your report. If it is inaccurate in any way, then legally it must be removed from your report. Carefully word your dispute letter with diplomatic and professional language, and inform the credit reporting agencies that you want them to investigate the points you raise in your letter as you are disputing their accuracy. If you have evidence supporting your claim, submit a copy with your dispute letters. The credit agencies want to report correct information, and they will look at the evidence you send to them. Make sure you do not acknowledge that the debt is yours or make any payment offers as this could potentially restart the 7 year clock that the debt will be reported about you.
After you have disputed your items the credit agencies are allowed a minimum of 30 days to respond under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). During this time they will contact the data furnisher and attempt to verify the accuracy of the debt they are reporting about you. Generally the data furnisher will simply respond that the data is correct, and nothing will change. The credit bureau will send you a letter explaining that they reviewed your claim, and the information was reported to be accurate, and therefore they will continue to report it. If you have submitted good documentation supporting your position, the credit bureau will review it, however they may still side with the data furnisher and refuse to remove the incorrect items(s) from your report.
If this happens, you will need to contact the original creditors and the collections agencies if they are involved, and request validation of the debt they are reporting about you. Typically you will receive some sort of report generated by them which simply states that you them a certain amount of money. This amount will rarely correlate with what you think you owe, or what is being reported onto your credit report. Depending on what type of information you receive from the data furnisher directly, you may be able to simply write a new letter to the credit bureau with copies of the information you received from the data furnisher and an explanation of how the information doesn't correlate with what is being reported on your credit report. They are also required to be able to validate your debt. This is different than verifying it, which is what data furnishers sometimes do. Look up this distinction online and then check to make sure that they have provided the evidence legally required of them to continue reporting information about you.
The parties you will be contacting include:
- The three major credit bureaus
- The data furnishers
- Original creditors
- Collection agencies
- Others various parties
Dealing with each of these contacts and correctly generating effective correspondence to them along with corroborating evidence will be the best and fastest way to fix your credit reports.
- Do not enter into any payment negotiations with collections agencies or any other data furnishers without express written statements from them that they will be deleting the "tradeline" once you have fulfilled your payments. This is a very important step when dealing with data furnishers, and forgetting to specify this could cause negative information to stay on your report for much longer in the form of a paidcollections account.
Step 4: Raising or Establishing Your Credit Worthiness
If everything looks good on your credit reports and your score still isn't as high as you think it should be, or if you are just new to obtaining credit, there are several things you should be aware of.
- Some credit scoring models will give you a lower score for credit card limits or loans which are under $2,000 - get a limit at least this high if you can.
- The average age of all of your combined accounts is important - the older the better. What this means is that if you have 10 accounts with an average age of 22 years and then you go out and open 4 new accounts to try and raise your score, the average age of your accounts will drop to just under 15 1/2 years old. This will have a negative effect on your credit score and may offset any benefit of opening 4 new accounts, which will also generate 4 new hard inquiries which will also have a negative effect. Make sure you absolutely need credit before applying for it.
- Having over twenty accounts in good standing can raise your score, however the average age of your accounts will generally make more of an impact on your score than the total number of your accounts (see above).
- If you have bad credit or no credit - try this out: Pull your credit reports and fix everything on them that you can so that your credit history is as favorable as possible. Save up $200 dollars, and then go to your bank or go online and find a company which offers secured loans and credit cards - these are generally easy to be approved for because the credit limit is the same as the amount which you deposit. In this case, you will deposit $200 to obtain a secured loan, then you will take the $200 from your loan and open a secured credit card. This way, you will gain two new accounts which are reporting your timely payments to the credit bureaus for the price of one. Also, you aren't really out any money because even though you deposited $200 to obtain a secured credit card and loan, you now have $200 worth of credit at your disposal. Make sure you make timely payments on these two accounts and your score can easily go up 75 points or more in just a few months. If you can manage a $2,000 secured loan then you will get the benefit of having a loan and a credit card with credit limits of at least $2,000 each which will both report to the major credit bureaus and can raise your score even more. If you decide to do this make sure your secured card provider reports to all three major credit bureaus - and try to pay off your credit card in full each month.
- On time payments to your accounts in good standing are the best way to raise your score and keep it there.
- If you are offered a lower credit card limit than you want you can always call the financial provider and request a higher limit. Sometimes all they need is a little additional information to approve you for thousands of dollars more.
- The amount of your credit limit which you actually borrow matters; your debt to credit ratio is what credit agencies use to quickly see how much of your available credit you are using each month. This amount can change on a daily basis and has a major effect on your credit score. Keep the total amount of your debt down to about 20% or less of your available credit to look favorable.
- Don't max out individual cards; if you have $10,000 of total credit on three cards of $4,000, $5,000 and $1,000 dollars, don't max out any individual card. Keep each of them at 20% or less utilization to save on interest and to keep your cards from being individually over utilized.
- Keep your cash back by paying your cards in full each month. As long as the accounts are active and being used, paying them off each month won't look bad for your score. By not carrying a monthly balance you will avoid paying interest completely while still receiving cash back for using your cards. In this case, you can actually make money by properly managing your credit cards if you are disciplined.
- Paying twice can save you thousands; many loans can be paid off much quicker by simply taking the monthly amount owed, splitting it in two and paying it off in two separate payments each billing cycle. If you can add just a little extra in each payment your savings could be significant and it could speed up the time it takes to pay off your loan by months. Mortgages and car loans are great for this strategy.
I encourage you to look into the huge amount of information available online and learn as much as possible prior to taking any of the steps outlined above as a simple mistake could be extremely negative to your credit profile. Fixing your credit can be tricky, with a lot of pitfalls and confusing rules, regulations and recommendations. Even so, it is absolutely imperative to just go ahead and dive into it and get started as the longer you wait, the more it will cost you in the long run.