Q. A couple years ago, a collection agency got a judgment against me without my knowledge. After they started garnishing my wages, I filed a motion to vacate the judgment since I was never served. I won, but the judgment is still showing up on my credit report. How do I get it off? Thanks,
A. Congratulations on getting the judgment vacated. Since you no longer have a judgment against you, the credit bureaus should remove it from your record. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. Credit bureaus (and the public record researchers who sell them the data) commonly miss changes such as an order vacating a judgment, satisfactions of judgment, and the like. (National Consumer Law Center, Fair Credit Reporting, Ch. 184.108.40.206.2.)
So, what do you do now?
Since your report is no longer accurate, your next step –as with any false or erroneous information on your credit report – is to file a dispute. This triggers a “reinvestigation” by the credit bureau which should result in the inaccurate information being removed. Unfortunately, the dispute process is not reliably effective. Consumers frequently have to file numerous disputes, and sometimes lawsuits, before the errors are corrected. (Fair Credit Reporting, 220.127.116.11.) Here’s how to dispute this or any other problems on your report:
Check all of your credit reports. Check all of the “big three” credit bureaus (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian) to find it if all of them show the judgment. You can order a credit report from each for a fee. Once a year, you can get a free credit report from each upon request by visiting annualcreditreport.com.
Mail a written dispute to each of the bureaus that show the judgment. Although each bureau has a toll-free number for disputes, it is best to use a written dispute to create a record of the request. The online dispute forms you will find at their websites give you limited space and don’t let you attach copies of the order vacating the judgment. (They may also never be seen by a human being.)
There is no required form for a written dispute request, but it should include all of the following:
- Thorough identifying information, including full name, current and recent addresses, date of birth, telephone number, Social Security number, name of spouse (if any), and current employment information.
- A clear description of the judgment on your credit report, along with a copy of the report with judgment circled;
- An explanation of why you are disputing the information (e.g., “This judgment has been vacated by order of the court”), along with a certified copy of the order vacating the judgment. Include specific steps for the investigation (“contact the records department of the court at [phone number] to verify this order”);
- And finally, a direct request that the CRA delete or correct the information.
Consider signing your dispute letter under oath, in front of a notary. This converts it to an affidavit, which boosts its credibility and may get it more in-depth review. Fair Credit Reporting, 18.104.22.168.2-9.
Make sure to send it to the correct address for each bureau. Certified mail, return receipt requested, is advised. Keep copies of all correspondence and the return receipts in a separate file folder for each agency. Fair Credit Reporting, 22.214.171.124.3.If you speak to someone on the phone, make a note of the date, person you spoke with, and outcome and put it in the file folder, too.
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FRCA), the credit bureaus must then investigate the dispute, and forward all the relevant data to the information provider (“furnisher”) that sold them the information in the first place. The furnisher then must investigate and report back to the bureau.
When the investigation is complete, the credit bureau must give you the results in writing and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. If you ask, the bureau must send notices of any corrections to anyone who received your credit report in the past six months (two years for reports used for employment purposes).
The bureau will also give you contact information on the furnisher. Some people find that even after they clear an item off their record, it pops up again months later, because the furnisher leaves the inaccurate information in its files, and sends it out again to the bureau. To prevent this, send your dispute directly to the furnisher as well.
What if the dispute is denied?
Disputes often receive very cursory review and are denied almost automatically if the basic information matches the furnisher’s files. If this happens, you can request that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports.
Unfortunately, you may need to repeat the dispute, perhaps with telephone follow-up, to get a more thorough review. Filing a complaint with the FTC (https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/) or the Better Business Bureau (http://complaint.bbb.org/) is another way to get your dispute taken seriously. If you have tried several times without result, you might even try calling your congressional representative or senator to ask them to call the FTC and demand action.
You may even need to file a lawsuit. If you do, under the FCRA, you may be entitled to actual damages (court costs, attorney’s fees, lost wages, and defamation) and in outrageous cases, punitive damages. The library has several books that may assist you with this, including general books such as Nolo’s Represent Yourself in Court and more specific books such as the National Consumer Law Center’s Fair Credit Reporting, which has an in-depth description of how the credit report business works, detailed information on how to file a lawsuit, and sample court forms.
Best of luck with your quest to clear your credit report!
Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email email@example.com. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.