If you're not reviewing your Equifax report periodically, you could be overlooking mistakes that hurt your credit score.
Unfortunately, mistakes happen more often than you might realize. According to a study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 1 in 5 Americans are victims of credit reporting mistakes.
When these errors go uncorrected, they can lower your credit score, making it difficult for you to qualify for loans or credit cards.
A low credit score can also mean paying a higher interest rate. In some cases, a bad score can even hurt your chances of getting a job or stop you from renting an apartment.
Fortunately, it's possible to get mistakes on your Equifax report corrected. Here are the steps to take to make sure your information is accurate.
1. Pull the most recent copy of your Equifax report
Under federal law, you're entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each credit bureau, including Equifax, once every 12 months.
To get your report, visit annualcreditreport.com and fill out the online form. The site will ask you questions to confirm your identity, so it's a good idea to have identifying information on hand.
2. Review your report for any errors
Once you have your Equifax credit report, review it thoroughly. Spend time going over each account listed on your report. Look for common errors, including:
Inaccurate personal details - Look over your personal information, including your name and address. Even small mistakes can be significant.For example, if your Equifax report lists an incorrect address or the wrong middle initial for your name, this could indicate that Equifax is mixing you up with someone else.Equifax might also be mingling your information with that of another person something the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) calls a "mixed file."
Closed accounts listed as open - If your report incorrectly lists a closed account as being open, you should file a dispute to correct the account's status.
Accounts that don't belong to you - Review your report to make sure every account listed actually belongs to you. If you spot an account that looks suspicious or unfamiliar, it might not be yours.If you're divorced, look for accounts that belong to your ex. In many cases, spouses get listed as co-owners on a debt even if the court assigned it to one person as part of the divorce settlement.
Duplicate accounts - Make sure your report doesn't list an account more than once. This includes accounts that have been purchased by a debt collector but are still listed as an active account with the original creditor.
Incorrect payment history - Your payment history makes up 35 percent of your credit score, so it's important to make sure yours is accurately listed.
Balance errors - Check for "balance errors," which can include the wrong amount of debt owed on an account or an account with an inaccurate credit limit.Balance errors can impact your credit utilization, which is the ratio of how much credit you use compared to how much overall available credit you have.
3. Gather any supporting documentation
If you identify a mistake on your report, your next step is to gather the information you'll need to file your dispute. Equifax won't delete a mistake just because you tell them their information is wrong. To get your report corrected, you'll need to provide documentation to back up your claim.
Documents you might need can include:
Utility bill (to prove your address or identity)
Documentation from a creditor showing an account is closed (or still open)
Divorce decree (to show a debt was assigned to your ex)
Documentation related to a student loan
Canceled checks that prove payment
Police reports (to prove you're a victim of identity theft)
It's important to note that you should never send original documents when you file a dispute. Always send copies — keep the originals for your personal records.
4. File your dispute
Once you have the documentation you need to support your claim, you're ready to file your dispute.
There are three ways to do this: file online, send a letter via certified mail, or call Equifax and speak to a representation.
In the next section, we'll take a look at each dispute option.
Report an error to Equifax online
Equifax makes it easy to file a dispute online. To start an online dispute, go to Equifax's online dispute center and click "submit a dispute." You'll be prompted to enter some personal information so the system can locate your credit file.
From there, the system will display your credit file as it's listed with Equifax. Under each account listed, you will see a button labeled "dispute item." When you click it, the system will provide instructions for disputing the item.
You may need to scan your supporting documentation so you can upload it to the system. If you don't have a scanner or photocopier with a scanning function, you can visit a library or copy store to upload your documents.
You can also try snapping a photo of your documents and emailing them to yourself. From there, convert the photos to PDF format and upload to Equifax's system.
Once you're finished disputing incorrect items, Equifax will issue you a 10-digit confirmation code. You can use this code to check the status of your dispute by clicking "check a status" from the main dispute page.
Mail a letter to Equifax
You can also dispute an item on your credit report by mailing a letter to Equifax. To do this, download Equifax's dispute form and print it out.
You should also include the following information in your correspondence to Equifax:
Your date of birth
Your current address
Your social security number
The confirmation number listed on your most recent Equifax credit report
The item(s) you're disputing
For each item you're disputing, include the account number, along with any supporting documentation that backs up your claim.
Be straightforward in your letter. You don't need to explain how the incorrect information is affecting you or making you angry. Instead, keep your tone professional, polite, and to the point.
The CFPB also recommends including a copy of your credit report with the items you want to dispute circled or highlighted.
It's a good idea to send your letter via certified mail so you get confirmation when it's delivered.
Equifax's mailing address is:
Equifax Information Services LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
Call the Equifax dispute phone number
If you prefer talking to a live person, you can contact Equifax by phone at 1-888-548-7878.
However, you will still need to mail or email your supporting documentation to Equifax to complete your dispute.
What to expect after filing your dispute
Once you have submitted your dispute, Equifax will investigate and follow up with you within 30 days.
If Equifax determines that an item on your credit report is incorrect, it must correct the error or delete any inaccurate information.
In some cases, however, Equifax will notify you that its information is accurate insofar as the creditor has provided it. In that case, your next step should be to contact the creditor directly and begin a dispute process with them.
What type of information is included in your Equifax report?
Your credit report is a comprehensive record of your credit history. It contains four different areas of information:
Your personal identifying information - This includes your name, address, social security number, and date of birth.
Account information - Equifax refers to your accounts as "tradelines." This includes any account you've opened, such as credit cards, mortgages, and car loans.
Inquiries - When lenders and others access your credit report, this counts as a "hard" or "soft" inquiry. Soft inquiries can include things like employer background checks and pre-qualification offers. Hard inquiries, which can negatively impact your credit score, usually occur when you apply for credit. (Read about how to remove inquiries from your credit report).
Public records - This section includes things like bankruptcies, collection accounts, and liens.
Does a dispute hurt your credit score?
Filing a dispute won't hurt your credit score. Under federal law, you have a right to dispute any information you believe is mistaken or inaccurate. The credit bureaus can't penalize you for filing a dispute.
On the other hand, disputing an inaccurate item could help your score. If Equifax ends up deleting an inaccurate item, this could boost your score.
Consider placing a security freeze on your credit file
In some cases, reviewing your credit report turns up an item that looks suspicious or troubling. If you suspect suspicious activity on your Equifax credit report, it might be worth placing a security freeze on your credit file. This prevents unauthorized entities from accessing your credit file.
It's free to place a credit freeze on your file. As with filing a dispute, you can initiate a credit freeze with Equifax by phone, email, or regular mail.
Consider hiring a credit repair company to help you
If you find multiple errors on your credit report, it might be worth hiring a credit repair company to help you with the dispute process.
Understandably, not everyone has the time or patience to deal with disputing items on their credit report. When you work with a credit repair company, you provide them with your supporting documentation, and they handle the rest. As a bonus, they can dispute incorrect information with all three credit bureaus.
Other tips for improving your credit score
Aside from checking your credit report regularly, the best way to improve your credit score is by paying your bills on time. Because your payment history is responsible for 35 percent of your credit score, even one or two late payments can drop your score.
Disputing an inaccurate item on your Equifax credit report can be a time-consuming process, but the end result could be a better credit score.
Fortunately, Equifax gives you different options for filing a dispute.
Whether you dispute online, by mail, or via the phone, it's important to make sure your credit report is accurate.
About the Author
Mike is a recognized credit expert and founder of Credit Takeoff. His credit advice has been featured in CNBC, Investopedia, CreditCards.com, Bankrate, Huffpost, The Simple Dollar, Reader's Digest, LendingTree, and Quickbooks. Read more.