Frequently Asked Questions about Credit Reporting and Other Consumer Protection Issues
If you’re reading this, you probably have a ton of questions about your consumer rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other consumer laws. That’s understandable.
Please read this primer on credit reporting and consumer issues first! There won’t be a quiz or even a participation trophy, but you will probably learn something and feel more empowered by the end….so thank you!
Often called a “credit bureau,” a “credit reporting agency” is not an department of the government. It is a business that, for a fee, assembles and evaluates credit or other information about people for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports to third parties. 15 U.S.C. §1681a.
Credit bureaus make money when creditors “subscribe” to the credit report to get the scoop on consumers. In essence, we, the individual humans, are the “product” of the credit reporting agencies, not their “customers,” despite the myriad products and services they are trying to get us to buy all the time.
www.annualcreditreport.com and not anywhere else. That is the FREE credit report site. Some of the other sites are just going to sign you up to buy things you don’t need (and may contain forced arbitration clauses in the fine print that could prevent you from having your day in court).
A “consumer report,” sometimes called the “consumer disclosure” or most often, a “credit report,” is any communication from a consumer reporting agency that speaks to a person’s “creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics or mode of living” used to establish a person’s eligibility for “credit or insurance…for personal, family or household purposes, employment purposes or other authorized purposes.” 15 U.S.C. §1681a.
A consumer reporting agency must, among other things, clearly and accurately disclose to you certain information on you in its files. If you dispute the information, the credit reporting agency must investigate it or delete it. A credit reporting agency also must disclose to you the recipients of consumer reports about you for employment purposes within the past two years, and any other purpose, within the past year, upon request. It also must give you a written summary of your rights under the FCRA. 15 U.S.C. §1681g.
A consumer reporting agency is obligated to follow reasonable procedures to ensure maximum possible accuracy of consumer information it reports. 15 U.S.C. §1681e(b). Unlike the FDCPA (discussed elsewhere on this site), the FCRA is not a strict liability statute, and if the credit reporting agency can establish that it did follow reasonable procedures to maintain maximum possible accuracy of your credit report, it isn’t liable for the errors. If the credit reporting agency was negligent in violating the FCRA, it is liable for actual damages, costs and the consumer’s attorney’s fees. 15 U.S.C. §1681o. If its actions were willful, the consumer may get punitive damages against the credit reporting agency! 15 U.S.C. §1681n. That’s really important. “Negligent” is being sloppy and spilling the milk…whereas “willful” is akin to the situation where someone knows they’re prone to spilling the milk…every morning at breakfast…but they don’t do enough to change. Sound like someone (or some thing) you know?
Mixed files occur when someone else, often with a similar name or Social Security number, shows up on your credit report. You might see completely unfamiliar accounts, and a list of other people’s names and social security numbers listed as “variations,” and addresses where you’ve never lived.
Sometimes, a good bill-paying consumer with good credit has an “evil twin” who suddenly pops up on their credit report. How can this happen? The computer doesn’t look at every letter in your name and every number in your social security number, and it is an unfeeling inanimate object that couldn’t care less about you.
For example, suppose your name is Jane Doe. Someone named Jane Deer has bad credit. You go to apply for a refinance on your house, and the bank turns you down because Jane Deer’s 10 accounts in collection show up on your credit report. Lo and behold, Jane Deer has a similar Social Security number too. Suddenly, she’s like that hard-luck old friend who won’t leave your couch and eats all the food in your fridge. Or a scary movie about a bad roommate. What do you do? Dispute it in writing via certified mail, save all credit denial letters and contact a consumer protection attorney.
Mixed Files Can Also Occur Between Parents, Children And Siblings
Suppose your name is John Doe Jr. Your dad is John Doe Sr. Your dad was never very good with money, and well…you go to apply for a car loan, and you are turned down for credit, because your dad’s court judgment from nine years ago is on your credit report. Oh, and your little brother, Jeff Doe, has a couple of drug convictions (that wind up on your background check) and you fail a background check when you are applying for a new job.
Then, you are turned down for an apartment, apparently because Jeff was thrown out of his last place, so you take your chances on Craigslist. You thought you were rid of your crazy family when you got your MBA and moved to the city, but unfortunately, not on your credit report. What do you do? Dispute it in writing via certified mail, save all credit denial letters and call a consumer protection attorney.
Go to www.identytheft.gov for helpful steps including getting a credit freeze, filing a police report, and disputing the false accounts on your credit report.
A credit freeze is designed to prevent anyone from accessing your credit report. Even you won’t be able to get credit again until you “thaw” your credit report. So, if you get a credit freeze, save your PIN number in a safe place. You’ll need it to reopen access to your credit report.
You will also need to do a lot of legwork to contact all the banks and creditors where the thief opened credit. Keep track of your time, your mileage, and your receipts from the post office.
I can’t change the fact that identity theft is a huge hassle and often heartbreaking, but I can help mop up the mess it leaves behind. It often takes a lawyer with knowledge of multiple state and federal laws to get it done right. I don’t recommend “identity theft insurance.” That’s just another way insurance companies like to prey on our fears.
After you’ve submitted fraud affidavits and your police report to creditors and disputed the accounts on your credit report, if you are still being held liable for the accounts and/or they’re still on your credit report, contact me and we will discuss what next steps may be appropriate for you and what legal claims you might want to bring.
In certain scenarios, yes.
Paid, settled and discharged debts are often incorrectly reported on consumers’ credit reports. Suppose you had a debt that you paid off in a Chapter 13 plan, which you successfully completed and were awarded a discharge at the end. Not only is this debt paid, it is discharged. But several years later, it comes back to haunt you when you apply for credit. Then, it looks like you had a bankruptcy and “new” negative items in default. The creditors you already paid start coming after you for the bills. What do you do? Dispute it in writing via certified mail, save photocopies or scans of your dispute letters, attach whatever proof you had that you already paid it or it was discharged, save all credit denial letters and call a consumer protection attorney.
Sometimes, the credit bureaus can really mess up and report that you are deceased. As Mark Twain said, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Or to quote Monty Python, “I’m not dead! I don’t want to go on the cart!” What do you do? Dispute it in writing via certified mail, save all credit denial letters and call a consumer protection attorney.
Excellent question! So, you got your credit report from https://www.annualcreditreport.com and there’s something that is truly, legitimately, inaccurate and false. You want to dispute it. Here’s how.
If you have negative/false items in your credit report and you are very certain that the information is wrong, you should dispute this with the three credit bureaus. You can and should do this yourself for free. Do it in writing, attach your documentation and send it via certified mail. Don’t just save a Word file in your computer and send me that later. (It makes me grumpy.) Actually print out the dispute letters, pen your signature, and photocopy, scan or take a legible phone picture of the signed letter before you send it.
It can also help to add the certified mail tracking number to the letter by each recipient’s address. Pick up your certified mail supplies at the post office ahead of time so you can type the numbers into your letter.
What kind of documentation should you attach? Include a photocopy of your driver’s license, social security card and a utility bill at your current address so that the credit reporting agency can locate your credit file. Also include photocopies of proof that you paid or discharged the debt, such as a canceled check or a copy of a court order showing the debt is not owed. If it is a matter of other people’s stuff on your credit report, just use the documentation of your identity and include in your letter an explanation that you are not the other person and have never lived at _____ address (etc.)
Also, don’t do an online dispute. You can’t include as much information and it isn’t as good. A piece of certified mail with good documentation is the best practice.
If you have just noticed the error, there are things you can and should do right away. Mail a polite dispute letter to the credit reporting agency (aka “credit bureau”) explaining what is inaccurate and why, and include photocopies of your proof. In the case of a debt that was discharged, you might include your bankruptcy documents. In the case of a mixed file where someone else’s name and accounts show up on your credit report, proof of your identity such as utility bills going to your current address, a photocopy of your drivers’ license and photocopy of your social security card can help you show that you’re not the other person. Keep a photocopy of your entire dispute package and your certified mail receipts.
It’s also really important to save all credit denial letters. These are called “adverse action letters.” If you are turned down for a credit card, apartment or a loan, you should receive a letter stating the reasons why, such as “number of revolving accounts” and “collection or public record filed.” Even though these letters can be annoying and painful to look at, do not throw them away! They can wind up being useful if you have a case.
Finally, if your credit report is a mess because of you (I’m not judging; I’ve heard it all), flooding the credit reporting agencies with a flurry of disputes in hope that the credit reporting agency drops the ball is not a good strategy and makes you look kind of weird. Companies, called “credit repair” organizations, that will do that for you for a fee, or tell you to dispute everything even if it’s accurate, are wasting your time. If your explanation for a negative item on your credit report is “yes, but–” your issue may not be with the credit reporting agency, it might be with the original creditor, or with the collection agency. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no legal claim. It just might be under a different law. That’s why talking to a consumer protection lawyer who is familiar with a lot of different consumer laws — and not a credit repair shop — is going to be more useful for you and probably save you a lot of time (and money, too).
Then what are Equifax, Experian and Trans Union supposed to do in response?
The credit reporting agency is obligated to either investigate the item or delete it. Here’s the law in legalese. Under 15 U.S.C. §1681i, the credit reporting agency must “conduct a reasonable reinvestigation to determine whether the disputed information is inaccurate.” The credit reporting agency cannot simply parrot back what the furnisher of the information said was true, and must consider all relevant information provided by you in your dispute. The credit reporting agency has 30 days from the consumer’s notice to reinvestigate and update the disputed information, or delete it.
You can sue to enforce your rights under the FCRA, and a skilled lawyer should definitely evaluate your case to determine what to do about incorrect information on your credit report. Fighting the big computer is no small matter.
What’s all this stuff about writing my own disputes when there are credit repair companies that promise to do it better?
You might be wondering why I am hating on credit repair so much. Credit repair companies market to people who have bad credit, for whom disputing accurate accounts won’t do much good. It’s false hope. It’s gross. But if you’re not making frivolous disputes, and the stuff on your credit report is truly inaccurate, credit repair is still not the best way to go. It can get very expensive! Furthermore, automated, cookie-cutter form letter disputes can sometimes be treated as “suspicious” or “frivolous” by the credit reporting agencies. I know you are busy, but you need to do the dispute letters yourself if you want to do it legit. Have writer’s block? Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for a handy how-to, a sample letter, and additional helpful educational material: Sample Letter Disputing Errors on Your Credit Report
Assuming it’s inaccurate, you can, after you take certain steps. You can’t sue the “furnisher” (that’s the creditor who reports accounts to the bureaus) for violations of the FCRA straight out of the gate, or else everyone will know that it is your first rodeo. Don’t be that guy.
You have to first dispute it with the credit reporting agencies, and then the credit reporting agencies have to go back to the furnisher and ask them to reinvestigate it. Only when the furnisher comes back and says “yeah, this is your account,” when in reality it is not your account (or is otherwise incorrectly reported) can you sue the furnisher under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Whether the furnishers are incorrectly reporting an account on your credit report because it was opened by a thief, or the fact the debt isn’t owed is a matter of public record (e.g. bankruptcy discharge or dismissal with prejudice of a debt collection lawsuit against you) or is a case of mixed file or mistaken identity, the process is the same. You can’t sue a creditor/furnisher until you’ve first disputed it directly to Equifax, Experian, Trans Union and/or some other credit reporting agency, the credit reporting agency contacted the furnisher regarding your dispute, and the furnisher responded erroneously.
Please don’t hate me…the short answer is probably not, at least not against the credit reporting agency. Your dispute is with the insurance company, not with the credit reporting agency. The credit reporting agency can’t step in and resolve these kinds of disputes between you and a creditor. They do need to reasonably reinvestigate accounts and can’t simply be an echo chamber for whatever the furnisher/creditors tell them. Sound complicated? It is. The good news is you might still have other, more viable claims under other consumer protection laws based on the billing snafu, wrongful collection activity, or against the furnisher/creditor, if after you dispute it, they verify objectively false information to the credit reporting agency. You might wind up with claims against the credit reporting agency if it drops the ball and fails to reinvestigate your dispute at all, but I don’t like to put all the eggs in that basket if there are better strategies. It can get really complicated really fast, and warrants careful review by a consumer protection attorney familiar with the FCRA, state consumer laws, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the big headache that is our medical billing system.
If your debt is reported accurately, I won’t file a lawsuit for you. I wish I could help everybody, but I can’t. Thankfully, there’s a ton of helpful information online for people who don’t have legal claims (or claims that I regularly bring) but still need help. If you have really bad credit and that’s your own doing, read these websites:
NACA’s website has a lot of helpful information and a list of more lawyers in Washington State who help consumers. You can check that out here: http://www.consumeradvocates.org/for-consumers
You can also try your local county bar association lawyer referral service, WSBA’s Moderate Means Program, or the NW Justice CLEAR Hotline. Contact information for these along with other helpful information is available at this link: https://www.wsba.org/for-the-public/find-legal-help
The Washington State Attorney General Consumer Protection Division has information about consumer topics and how to file a consumer complaint with that agency. http://www.atg.wa.gov/consumer-issues
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has information about consumer topics and how to file a consumer complaint with that agency. https://www.consumerfinance.gov
I’m not judging or trying to be harsh here — most people do not just wake up one day and decide to quit paying their bills. The cause is usually divorce, illness, job loss, or student loans getting paid first before other bills. Bad credit can stay on your credit report for seven years, and judgments and bankruptcies ten years. I can’t make that go away, but the good news is that the older a bad mark on your credit is, the less it factors into your credit score. If your credit report seems accurate to you, you probably don’t have a case. If, however, your credit report is simply false and wrong (even if you had a bankruptcy or haven’t been perfect), then let’s talk.
I know that not everybody learns well by reading a long article like the one above. And, even if you read it all, you might have more questions or have an inkling a lawsuit may be in your future. So, contact me if you’re interested in discussing over the phone or in person, to determine if a lawsuit is appropriate in your situation. I have extensive knowledge of the FCRA and other consumer laws that may apply to your situation. Please get a hold of me if you’d like to learn more about how the FCRA and other consumer laws protect you by scheduling a consultation through my Contact page.
It is sometimes necessary to bring a big company to court in order to get them to take accountability for their screw-ups. If a credit reporting agency (“credit bureau”) or furnisher (creditor who is reporting accounts to the “bureau”) is preventing you from buying a home you can afford in a neighborhood you want to be in, renting an apartment, buying a car or otherwise getting a loan you need to live your dreams, let’s see what we can do for you.
I believe consumer rights are some of our most precious rights as Americans. A free society and a free market depend on the circulation of true information and peaceful resolution of disputes. The 7th Amendment protects your right to a jury trial in a civil case, and these privacy statutes protect your ability to participate meaningfully in our free-market economy that is increasingly run by huge computers. Sure, you didn’t get run over by a truck. Sure, you aren’t facing jail time due to an alleged crime. But you have been injured — the higher interest rate, the sleepless nights, the hours of time spent on the phone and writing disputes, and the frustration you feel are how you have been damaged. When YOU are credit-worthy, but something that is false or not yours causes you to be turned down unfairly, our economy suffers – not just you. This is why I am a voice for consumers.
If you are interested in a consultation, please gather up ALL your paperwork and go to my Contact page. I look forward to hearing from you.
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