how to dispute an error on your credit reportYou finally narrowed down the perfect credit card to fill the empty slot in your wallet and applied, only to be turned down. The reason given by the credit card issuer makes no sense to you — too many new accounts? You know that you haven’t applied for new credit in over a year, so that can’t be right. Concerned, you make your way to AnnualCreditReport.com and order copies of your credit reports from all three of the credit bureaus. As you look them over and spot multiple unfamiliar accounts for credit cards, utilities and more, your heart sinks. You know that you didn’t open these accounts, and you wonder what to do about them. This is just one of the many scenarios that can play out when it comes to discovering an error on your credit reports. Sometimes errors are less drastic — a misspelling of your name, or an account you paid that gets marked as being in collections. Regardless of what it is and how it got there, you have options to report the error and get it removed. Keep reading for our primer on the steps you should take.

Step 1: Gather your evidence

It can be all too easy to simply panic and want to call someone immediately when you find an error on your credit reports, but first you need to step back, take a deep breath and focus on gathering evidence to support your claim. The more proof you can show that the error is, in fact, erroneous increases the likelihood that you will be successful in your dispute. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may not be able to find as much information as you’d like, but any data you can gather is better than none. If you are dealing with probable identity theft, as in the scenario we described earlier, you should file a police report as well as report the problem to the FTC. Some credit bureaus or creditors may require a police report in order to successfully close an account and remove it from your profile, so you might as well get this taken care of first and add it to your evidence. If your situation warrants, you might be able to obtain free copies of your credit reports (e.g., you filed a police report for identity theft or you are eligible for your annual free credit report copies), but otherwise you will have to spend a little money to get your hands on up-to-date copies. This will enable you to check across the board for additional errors.

Step 2: Contact the credit bureau(s)

Hopefully, you will only have to deal with a single error on one of your three credit reports — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — however, it’s possible for there to be errors on all three, especially in the case of identity theft. As such, you will want to be sure that you obtain updated copies of your reports, if you haven’t already. You will need to file a formal dispute with each credit bureau, wherein you explain what information you think is incorrect and why. You’ll want to include copies of all documentation you have supporting your claims, including copies of your credit report with the item(s) in question highlighted. You can opt to file your dispute online using a guided tool or offline through the mail. Should you choose to file by postal mail, you will want to include a detailed dispute letter alongside your evidence. If you aren’t sure what you should write, the FTC has a helpful form letter you can use for free.

If you want to file a dispute with …

Equifax: Use its online dispute tool or use the contact information on this page to send mail or call.

Experian: Use its online dispute tool or follow the directions on this page for disputing by mail or phone.

TransUnion: Use its online dispute tool or follow the instructions on this page to dispute by mail or phone.

Once your dispute has been filed, the credit bureau has 30 days to investigate and provide a response. If it cannot verify that the error on your credit report is accurate during that time, it must be removed.

Step 3: Send copies of your dispute to the creditor(s)

To speed up the process and ensure that your concerns are taken seriously by both parties, it can also be helpful to send the same information you submit to the credit bureau to the creditor or party responsible for the error. You can typically find this information by looking on your credit reports, but if you have trouble, you can contact the credit bureau’s customer service department to get the details. In the best-case scenario, the creditor will contact the credit bureau on its own to have the error removed or corrected. If it’s an outstanding, unpaid account in question, submitting your documentation might also lead to some kind of offer to settle the debt — not ideal, if you truly think it’s there in error, but as a last-ditch effort to save your credit from tanking, it’s not the worst solution. Consider this type of scenario only if your dispute and any follow-up appeals fail.

Step 4: Follow up

Don’t just hit the “submit” button and forget about it. One of the best things about using the online dispute tools the credit bureaus have set up is that you can watch the progress of your dispute as it unfolds. You don’t need to spend time listening to hold music in order to speak to an agent or wait for a letter to arrive in the mail. Keep tabs on the progress, especially as the 30-day time limit nears its end (if you haven’t received a resolution before then, that is). If it feels like too much time has gone by without any contact on behalf of the creditor or credit bureau, pick up your phone and call. And if you do get a ruling in your favor, don’t just assume that the problem is taken care of without double-checking your credit reports — sadly, mistakes happen, and it’s wise to make absolute certain that they corrected the error before going about your business. You might consider signing up for a credit monitoring service to keep a close eye on your credit reports for a while, especially if identity theft has played a part in the mayhem.

If your dispute is rejected …

Unfortunately, credit bureaus sometimes side with the creditor in dispute cases. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s over. You are allowed to appeal the decision, which we wrote about here. Make sure that when you appeal, you do your best to remain rational and calm, as well as provide any additional documentation you might be able to dig up in the interim. You may also consider reaching out to the creditor and see if some kind of amicable solution can be reached, as discussed earlier. At the very least, remember that derogatory items won’t remain on your credit reports forever. Eventually, they will disappear — usually in seven years, 10 at the most.

Keep reading our credit monitoring blog to learn more about how to handle credit-related issues like this one.