It’s a common piece of advice disseminated from even the most unlikely of places: Everyone from your parents to divorce lawyers tell you to stay on top of your credit. Know what is on your credit report. Know how to dispute any negative listings on your credit report. It’s sound advice, especially if you’re standing at the precipice of a looming divorce.

But disputing negative marks on a credit report is easier said than done. The effort can be both time-consuming and frustrating. The three credit report bureaus will investigate disputes but most agents will admit that the claimant is obligated to prove their innocence, and until sufficient evidence regarding the fallacy of the claim, is presumed guilty.

As with anything, knowledge is power. Educate yourself on how to deal with the credit bureaus. For example, if you receive a letter from one of the bureaus stating that the information you disputed has been verified as accurate, you can request the method of verification, which is your right under the FCRA section 611 (a) (7). “A consumer reporting agency shall provide to a consumer a description referred to in paragraph 6Biii [the section requiring reinvestigation] by not later than 15 days after receiving a request from the consumer for that description,” the section reads.

You may ask yourself: why does the method of verification used make any damn difference when I’m trying to repair my credit? Well, the answer is simple. The credit bureaus will not go out of their way when doing an investigation. They are not known for due diligence. This method is the most secure way to verify that your request for investigation is being honored. Call any of the three bureaus and ask for this method of verification. Unfortunately, CRAs often deny that they have a responsibility to provide the method of verification. The statute, however, is very clear, and it’s good to have a record that you made the request.

Determining if your dispute is being investigated properly can be a difficult process. Each agency has a different process for handling these disputes. Luckily, they all use a similar system.

Because we are not required to interact with enough automated software on a daily basis, the three agencies have aligned  to automate the entire reinvestigation process using an online computer program, e-Oscar. Credit bureaus and creditors use the software to investigate disputed items. Every dispute investigated by the bureau is received via written letter, the telephone or the credit bureaus online dispute service. Even if the credit bureau receives a highly detailed, written dispute with accompanying documentation, however, the information is downgraded to a simple two digit code within the e-Oscar software. Not the most optimal system for thorough investigation. The bureau will first attempt to resolve the dispute internally. Should that effort be unsuccessful, the agencies are required to send the all of the supporting documentation  to the creditor, but the only explanation included is the two-digit code.

With all of the frustrating practices of the bureaus making it seem nearly impossible to have a dispute validated and verified, where do you begin? Well, let me share my own experience with you. More than 10 years ago, I was a victim of identity theft, a nightmare in-and-of-itself. I had been waiting for random, negative things to appear on my credit report. The first was a credit card  that had been maxed out to the tune of $7k. The item appeared on my report with impeccable timing; the same week I had applied to refinance my car. A close friend, who was also the banker helping me refinance, told me that the negative mark could keep me from refinancing.  I was beside myself, convinced that this was a result of the identity theft. I felt victimized all over again.  It never occurred to me that an administrative error could be at fault.

I began calling credit bureaus, beginning with TransUnion, the bureau that had listed the fraudulent item first. I filed a dispute claim,and proceeded to call the agency to ask for a method of verification. The operator was extremely combative and unhelpful, only willing to say that the bureau had documentation, and that they almost never called creditors to verify claims.

I was shocked, but decided to conduct my own investigation. After only one phone call, I was able to speak with the creditor who was able to confirm that someone had made a mistake and transposed two of the numbers in the listed social security number. The debt was not mine. The culprit had made the mistake of using their real name and address. The creditor also confirmed that nobody from TransUnion had ever contacted them.

I called TransUnion again, recounting what the creditor’s agent had just relaid to me. Then, I insisted that the bureau verify what I’d been told. The agent refused, stating that she couldn’t.

I insisted.

“You are required by the FCRA to investigate my dispute and consider all information. Verify this or there’s going to be a problem here,” I’d said.

The agent asked if I wanted to open a new dispute. My head aching with the effort it took to not scream that she was an incompetent idiot and from two days of almost continuous eye rolling, I told her, that yes, I did. She gave me a confirmation number, and two weeks later I got a letter that the bogus charge had been removed from my credit report. I was able to refinance my car.

So, what worked for me? I took the following steps to have the mark verified and removed from my credit report.

First, challenge the listing with all the bureaus where the mark appears. Try to use the normal channels. If you see that the listing has been verified, be sure to have a copy of the investigation readily available and call the CRA at the phone number listed at the top of the report.

Give the agent the report reference number and ask for method of verification per FCRA Section 611(a)(7).

You’ll learn that the original creditor was never contacted, but that the bureau relied on a third party database to verify. If the agent cannot provide solid evidence of how the verification was obtained, ask for the creditor’s contact information. Then call the original creditor and ask for the records associated with the listing.

The creditor may tell you that the account has been passed to a collection agency. Request contact information for someone with that company. Get a name and a direct line. If that information is not available,  demand a copy of the records under the new FACTA act.

Second, when you are sent records, review them. If the records aren’t conclusive you’ll have to take the next step.

If the original creditor claims to no longer have the records, you have only a few choices. Call the bureau and alert them to that fact and demand that they open another dispute. Be sure to jot down the names and numbers of everyone you speak to. If the agent refuses to open a new dispute, inform them that  you will sue for willful non-compliance under section FCRA ß 616.

If they still refuse, send the information via certified letter along with an intent to sue letter. If not, they will give you a new confirmation number, and be obligated to get back to you within 30 days.

The good news is that if you have been diligent in keeping records of your efforts and contacts, you can prove that the original creditor cannot back up the negative listing. Send this information via registered mail to the CRA along with a letter of intent to sue.

The account will have to be removed or you should follow through on your threat for litigation.

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