Mike Ferrara wants to buy a house in a few months and is worried that mistakes on his credit report will keep him from obtaining the loan he will need.
His concern is legitimate. You'd think with a credit score of 650, he'd be fine. But not now. With banks less able to lend money than they were before the housing crash, mortgage loans are tougher to get unless people have credit scores in the mid-700s or higher.
So Ferrara, who lives in Harwood Heights, Ill., is right to want to erase mistakes from his credit reports - the records three credit bureaus assemble to show lenders a person's lifelong history of paying bills. If Ferrara can get the credit bureaus to fix even one or two errors in his credit history, it could make the difference between receiving the loan he wants or not.
But Ferrara, like many consumers, knows nothing about the credit maze and doesn't want to bother figuring it out.
"Tell me who can do it for me - someone legitimate," he said in a telephone conversation last week. "I have seen mistakes in my credit report. But I don't have the time to work on it. I drive a truck at night and need to sleep during the day."
Unfortunately, there are some slimy characters out there - firms that run ads making it sound as if they can make your credit messes vanish in a snap. If you have high bills and are trying to work on them, too often they collect a few hundred dollars from you and still leave you with your problems. Sometimes they make your credit score worse.
The Consumer Federation of America found in a 2003 study that many credit counseling firms charge excessive fees, promise quick fixes that are deceptive and provide improper advice. They put clients on payment plans they can't afford and sometimes collect money from clients without paying their bills. The result for the client: a worse credit score.
The most reputable firms can be found through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (800-388-2227 or www.nfcc.org), but they are not in the business of credit repair.
Too many credit-repair firms have a history of deceptive practices, and the Federal Trade Commission has charged several.
"You should be very cautious about using a 'credit repair clinic,' " said Evan Hendricks, author of Credit Scores & Credit Reports: How the System Really Works; What You Can Do.
Instead, roll up your sleeves and go to work on your credit report yourself. Even if you were able to find reputable help, you couldn't walk away completely. Only you can start the process by looking at your credit report and spotting credit card accounts you never had, or late payments that weren't late.
Begin by ordering a free credit report from each credit bureau through www.annualcreditreport.com. Don't respond to the ads you have seen for other sites that promise "free credit reports." Only annualcreditreport.com was set up under government rules to provide completely free reports.
You will need to look for mistakes in three credit reports; one from each credit bureau: Equifax (800-685-1111), TransUnion (800-916-8800), and Experian (888-397-3742). One bureau might be correct, while another might have errors. All three matter.
Sometimes people find their report reflects accounts held by someone with a similar name. Other times, people find unpaid bills they didn't know were delinquent. Medical bills can show up in reports while people are still seeking payments from insurance companies.
You won't see a credit score on the credit reports. But the credit score reflects the payment history you see in your credit reports, so cleaning up errors should improve your score. You can buy your credit scores at MyFico.com.
Credit bureaus are required by law to investigate all consumer disputes, fix errors and inform you of the outcome within 30 days. Hendricks suggests using the official dispute form provided by the bureaus on Web sites and writing a short letter that states you are "disputing the following inaccuracies." State why, and give the account, account number, your name, address, previous address, birth date, Social Security number and supporting documentation.
Hendricks said to send a certified letter with a return receipt, and send a copy to the credit card company or other firm that was erroneous in your report. Then file it all in case you are unsuccessful after 35 days and must pursue the matter further.
The credit bureaus investigate disputed records electronically, and often the system fails to detect mistakes when they have occurred.
At that point, you may want to get legal help, Hendricks said. If you do, seek an attorney with experience in the Fair Credit Reporting Act through the National Association of Consumer Advocates ( www.naca.net) or the National Consumer Law Center ( www.nclc.org).
Gail MarksJarvis is a Your Money columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.