U.S. consumers have filed 195,826 complaints about credit reporting with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) since 2011, according to its June 2017 Monthly Complaint Report.

Of these nearly 200,000 complaints, 76% involved incorrect information on a credit report.

If you think there may be a mistake in your credit report, you can do more than complain. You can work to fix it.

However, the first thing to do probably is not to go to a credit repair service. These third party services offer to improve your credit rating for a fee. The CFPB has received many complaints that these services mislead consumers, and it regularly initiates legal actions against these credit repair firms and individuals, involving both fraud and misleading claims.

Perhaps most importantly, anything a credit repair service promises, you can do yourself at no cost. "I've seen credit repair firms charge as much as $1,000 per account and all they're doing is what you can do for free," says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, also known as credit bureaus.

Credit Repair: The Warning Signs

If you still want to consider using a credit repair service, the Federal Trade Commission suggests watching out for warning signs, such as being asked for an up-front payment. This is illegal, according to the federal Credit Repair Organizations Act. Also be wary of someone who over-promises, such as guaranteeing to remove bankruptcies or foreclosures from a report.

Before signing anything, check the CFPB's complaint database to see if anyone has reported problems with the credit repair service, advises Bruce McClory, vice president for communications with the Washington, DC-based National Foundation for Credit Counseling, an association of nonprofit financial education organizations. And, if you have already signed an agreement, you have up to three business days to back out of it, according to the CFPB.

A Better Solution? Doing It Yourself

For most people, the best approach is to do it yourself. "You're your own best advocate in this kind of situation," says April Lewis-Parks, director of education for Consolidated Credit, a non-profit credit counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Griffin says that credit reporting agencies welcome corrections, and the process is not difficult to complete.

"People are very successful."
- Rod Griffin

Director of Public Education at Experian

Start by requesting a copy of your credit report from each of the major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Every consumer is entitled to receive one free report from each agency every 12 months. Request your report at AnnualCreditReport.com or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228. You can also get a free report any time you are denied credit or have another adverse event due to a credit report.

Scan the report for mistakes. Look for accounts you have paid off that still show as unpaid, or transactions you didn't make. If you find an error, contact the credit reporting agency and explain the situation. Include copies of documents such as statements or receipts. You can do this by mail, but Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion all offer free web services for disputing information.

The credit reporting agency, within 30 days, must forward your information to the creditor that submitted the original item. The creditor then must investigate and report back to the credit reporting agency. Inaccurate information must be corrected, and — whether or not a correction is made — the credit reporting agency has to tell you in writing what happened.

The Limits of Credit Repair

There are limits to what you can do when it comes to cleaning up your credit report. A credit reporting agency can't remove accurate and timely information, even when it's negative.

If you can't demonstrate that a negative item is in error, you'll have to wait for it to drop off your report. This can take time — a late payment may stay on for up to seven years, and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy stays on for 10 years. Some new scoring systems will remove paid accounts that include negative information from your report, according to Griffin, but for now credit repair is a long game.

If you can't get a negative item removed, you can still improve your credit by making all future payments as scheduled. Seeing this improvement takes time, but it is worth the effort.

"A good credit history and good credit score will save you a lot of money in interest or fees you'd pay to access credit," Griffin says. "So rehabilitating and managing your credit history is a very valuable financial step to take to make sure your financial wellbeing improves."

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