Every day, companies nationwide appeal to consumers with poor credit histories. They promise, for a fee, to clean up your credit report so you can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance, or even a job. The truth is, they can't deliver. After you pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars in up-front fees, these companies do nothing to improve your credit report; many simply vanish with your money.
The warning signs
If you decide to respond to a credit repair offer, beware of companies that:
If you follow illegal advice and commit fraud, you may be subject to prosecution. You could be charged and prosecuted for mail or wire fraud if you use the mail or telephone to apply for credit and provide false information. It's a federal crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application, to misrepresent your Social Security Number, and to obtain an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service under false pretenses.
Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, credit repair companies cannot require you to pay until they have completed the promised services. The truth
No one can legally remove accurate and timely negative information from a credit report. But the law does allow you to request a reinvestigation of information in your file that you dispute as inaccurate or incomplete. There is no charge for this. Everything a credit repair clinic can do for you legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act:
You also should tell the creditor or other information provider in writing that you dispute an item. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider then reports the item to any credit bureau, it must include a notice of your dispute. In addition, if you are correct -- that is, if the information is inaccurate -- the information provider may not use it again.
If the reinvestigation does not resolve your dispute, have the credit bureau include your version of the dispute in your file and in future reports. Remember, there is no charge for a reinvestigation.
Reporting negative information
Accurate negative information generally can be reported for seven years, but there are exceptions:
The Credit Repair Organizations Act
By law, credit repair organizations must give you a copy of the "Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law" before you sign a contract. They also must give you a written contract that spells out your rights and obligations. Read these documents before signing the contract. The law contains specific protections for you. For example, a credit repair company cannot:
Your contract must specify:
Have you been victimized?
Many states have laws strictly regulating credit repair companies. States may be helpful if you've lost money to credit repair scams.
If you've had a problem with a credit repair company, don't be embarrassed to report them. While you may fear that contacting the government will only make your problems worse, that's not true. Laws are in place to protect you. Contact your local consumer affairs office or your state attorney general (AG). Many AGs have toll-free consumer hotlines. Check with your local directory assistance.
You can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by contacting the Consumer Response Center by phone: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 202-326-2502; by mail: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or through the Internet, using the online complaint form. Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.
Need help? Don't despair!
Just because you have a poor credit report doesn't mean you won't be able to get credit. Creditors set their own credit-granting standards and not all of them look at your credit history the same way. Some may look only at more recent years to evaluate you for credit, and they may grant credit if your bill-paying history has improved. It may be worthwhile to contact creditors informally to discuss their credit standards.
If you can't resolve your credit problems yourself or you need additional help, you may want to contact a credit counseling service. There are non-profit organizations in every state that counsel consumers in debt. Counselors try to arrange repayment plans that are acceptable to you and your creditors. They also can help you set up a realistic budget. These counseling services are offered at little or no cost to consumers. You can find the office nearest you by checking the white pages of your telephone directory.
In addition, nonprofit counseling programs sometimes are operated by universities, military bases, credit unions, and housing authorities. They're also likely to charge little or nothing for their services. Or, you can check with your local bank or consumer protection office to see if it has a list of reputable, low-cost financial counseling services.
Even if you don't have a poor credit history, it's a good idea to conduct your own credit check-up, especially if you're planning a major purchase, such as a home or car. Checking in advance on the accuracy of the information in your credit report could speed the credit-granting process.
You're entitled to one free report a year if you can prove that:
Otherwise, a credit bureau may charge you up to $8 for a copy of your report.
Credit bureaus usually are listed in the yellow pages of your telephone book under "credit reporting agencies." Three large national credit bureaus supply most credit reports: TRW, Equifax, and Trans Union. You may want to contact each of them for a copy of your report.
Experian (formerly TRW)
P.O. Box 949
Allen, TX 75013
(888) EXPERIAN (397-3742)
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
760 West Sproul Road
P.O. Box 390
Springfield, PA 19064-0390
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