Here’s a simple, all-important fact about credit in the U.S.: Nothing in credit lasts forever, so you can always recover to achieve a better score.
People often think that bad credit is a curse that will follow them forever. But the truth is that you can solve most consumer credit problems within six months to a year. Even better? You don’t need professional credit help to do it. You can complete the repair process and rebuild your score without incurring any additional costs to make it happen.
In the world of finance, there are tons of things you pay someone to do even though you can do them for free on your own. From picking stocks and choosing index funds for your retirement to buying or selling a home, do-it-yourself cut costs significantly. Free credit repair is the same type of thing – you do the work on your own to avoid paying fees to a professional.
The instructions you find below allow you to repair your credit at absolutely no charge. In most cases, you do exactly the same work that a professional would handle on your behalf. But, instead of paying someone to file paperwork and handle any credit bureau phone calls, you do all that yourself.
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Steps to take for really and truly free credit repair
Step 1: Download your reports with no strings attached
The Fair Credit Reporting Act is a federal law that controls what shows up in your credit reports; it also determines who can see them. In addition, it mandates that every consumer is allowed one free copy of their credit report once every twelve months.
The government has a website where you can download free copies of your credit report once a year. Visit annualcreditreport.com. Answer a few security questions and you can download your reports without any hidden charges each year. You can get one copy of each report from each of the three credit bureaus. Any other site that offers you free reports almost certainly has some strings attached.
If you want to fix your credit score following a period of financial distress, you should download all your reports. In other cases, such as an annual checkup after you achieve the score you want, one report may be fine. For now, though, make sure to grab them all.
Step 2: Review your reports yourself
Credit report errors often contribute to a lower score, particularly following a period of financial hardship. There may be issues like mistakes in your payment history or outdated account statuses that could impact your score.
So, you want to read through each copy of your credit report carefully to identify mistakes or errors. Look for:
- Missed payments that you made on time
- Duplicate accounts, which throw off your debt-to-income ratio
- Outdated account statuses, such as charge-offs
- Collection accounts that are either paid or not really your debts
Any of these types of errors can contribute to a lower score. Simply asking the credit bureaus to correct these mistakes can help you achieve the score you want.
Now that you have your reports, identify the issues that contribute to a lower credit score. That’s any negative item listed in your report. These will fall into two categories:
- Negative information caused by a bad action you were forced to take
- Negative information that’s incorrect – i.e. your account is in good standing, but your report says it isn’t
Legitimate negative information cannot be removed legally until the penalty expires. If you miss a payment, the negative item it creates falls off automatically after seven years. Before that, you’re stuck working around the penalty.
However, credit repair deals with the second type of information – mistakes and errors that don’t belong in your report. Disputing incorrect information to have it removed is credit repair. That’s all the process is and that’s all a company does on your behalf. If you dispute these mistakes yourself, you repair your credit for free.
Step 3: Dispute the mistakes yourself
Truly free credit repair means you dispute all these mistakes yourself online. You can dispute these mistakes via registered mail, return receipt requested, but that will incur mailing fees. If you use the online dispute portal for each credit bureau, you avoid all charges.
Here are helpful links to the dispute portal for each bureau:
In your dispute, be brief and concise. Tell them what the issue is and what should happen to correct it. Don’t tell them a story or try to provide additional “evidence” of your case unless they ask for it. Stick to the basics of what can or can’t be verified. If you wonder why we keep repeating that word “verified” it’s because that’s what matters to the bureaus. Even if an item is correct, if they can’t verify it then they must remove it.
For instance, let’s say one of your accounts says you missed a payment on X date. You made that payment. In the dispute, you tell them the account, and then the month and year of the missed payment. Ask them to verify that you made the payment on time with the creditor. If they request it, provide copies of any documents that show you made a timely payment.
You don’t need to tell them that your car was broken, so you couldn’t get to the check cashing store. Instead, you called customer service and spoke to Lucy, who said she’d process it for you; but then clearly Lucy didn’t credit your account. You don’t score points for a sob story. In fact, the credit bureau may reject your dispute if you try to over-explain the situation.
The credit bureaus have 30 days to verify the information. They’ll check with the original credit or lender to provide verification; they may also ask you to provide documentation – always send them copies and keep your originals.
If they can’t verify the item, they must remove it from your report. Once the bureau removes the item, they should provide another free report so you can confirm it’s gone.
Step 4: Make a plan to offset any other negative items
Even after you remove all the mistakes, there may still be some negative items that remain in your report. Negative information that’s correct generally can’t be removed; you have to wait for the penalties to expire. In most cases, negative items drop off naturally after seven years.
However, you probably don’t wait to wait that long for your credit to recover. The good news is that the “weight” of negative items on your credit score decreases over time. In addition, you can offset past negative information with positive actions now.
There are two main factors that make up your credit score:
- Payment history
- Credit utilization ratio
Payment history accounts for 35% of your score and utilization accounts for 30%. Together, those factors make up almost two-thirds of the scoring calculation. So, if you diligently make payments on time and fix your credit utilization, you can achieve a better score.
Credit utilization refers to the amount of debt you currently carry relative to your total available credit. For example, if you have three credit cards each with a $3,000 limit, then your total available credit is $9,000. If you currently hold $3,000 in debt on those accounts, then your utilization ratio is 30%.
Step 5: Avoid any actions that would hurt your score
The key to building credit is that you don’t want to take any action that incurs a negative item now. It’s easy to offset negative items in the past with positive actions now. If you incur a negative item now, it will be bad for your score.
That means you should be extremely vigilant to avoid actions which would result in more negative items in your report:
- Don’t miss any payments by more than 30 days
- Stay on top of things like out-of-pocket medical bills to avoid new collection accounts
- Never run up your account balances to their credit limit
- Avoid opening multiple new accounts within a six-month period
- Don’t close your oldest accounts
- Stay away from alternative financial services (AFS), such as payday loans
Although the two factors mentioned above account for 65% of your score calculation, there’s still another 35% left over. The remaining factors include the number of new accounts opened, length of credit history and types of credit. That’s why you want to avoid opening too many new accounts at once. Closing old accounts can also decrease your score since you shorten the length of your history. And lenders also consider types of credit that you use, so you want to avoid “bad debt,” such as payday loans.
How long does it take to fix my credit score?
If you take these steps and avoid new negative items, your score should improve in six months to one year. How fast your score improves depends on where you started and how many negative items still linger in your report. But in most cases, this process allows you to at least recover to a fair credit score within a year.
And it’s important to note that using a paid service will generally result in the same timeline. If you hire a professional credit repair service, the process still takes over 30 days for each dispute. And there’s nothing a professional credit help service can do to increase your score faster. They’ll tell you to do exactly the steps we listed above.
Any attempt to game the system to get a better score faster is usually illegal or at least inadvisable. For instance, opening a new credit file with a different Social Security Number is fraud. Obtaining an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to get a new profile as a business is also illegal. If a company tells you to do this, it’s a scam! Report them immediately to the FTC.
What you pay for with paid professional credit repair
In general, you pay for two things:
- Less hassle and paperwork
- Experience making effective disputes
The first part of that is pretty obvious. If you don’t want to take the time to review your reports, file disputes and respond accordingly, you hire someone else. They do all the review and paperwork for you. Of course, they generally have to consult with you to figure out what’s an error and what’s legitimate. You may also still have to hunt down paperwork to prove the case. But, it does generally reduce your legwork during the credit repair process.
The second answer is a little harder to judge. As mentioned above, bureaus can reject disputes simply because they weren’t written the right way. If you worded something differently, it could lead to a rejection that would have been an approval. How you dispute information matters.
If you hire a state-licensed credit repair attorney, they have experience making disputes in your state. They understand state regulations that control credit repair where you live. They also know how to write a dispute in a way that leads to penalty removal.
That’s what you pay for when you pay a good credit repair company. You want to work with a company that has a track record in making successful disputes. That’s why companies that tell you how many items they’ve removed are more legit that companies that guarantee they can improve your score by 100 points.
In any case, if you have time, it’s worth it to try and make disputes on your own to avoid added costs. However, if you have tons of disputes to make or they seem complex, you may choose to hire a professional.
Debt.com can help you connect with an accredited, top-rated credit repair company. Get the results you want without a hassle!
An alternative way to repair your credit
Credit repair isn’t the only tactic that consumers need to achieve a high score. People also usually need to take steps to build credit. In many cases, a credit monitoring tool makes it easier to accomplish that.
What’s more, some paid credit monitoring tools come with built-in technology to help you make disputes. This means that you can get two services for improving your credit for the price of one.
Tools like SmartCredit® take an alternative path to dispute potential mistakes in your report. Instead of communicating with the credit bureaus, you make disputes directly with the credit furnishers. You send your dispute to the credit card company, lender, or collector who owns the account.
How credit furnisher disputes work
- Credit monitoring tools like SmartCredit will flag information in your credit report that contributes to lowering your score.
- It shows you each issue and explains why it negatively impacts your credit, as well as how much that item would affect your score.
- Then it offers action buttons that walk you through the process of sending a dispute letter directly to the creditor.
- The tool has auto-loaded responses, which can increase your chances of making a successful dispute.
- Once you edit the auto-responses to your satisfaction, the tool sends your dispute to the creditor.
This method of repair also offers an option that you don’t get when you make disputes with the credit bureaus. It’s known as a “good faith” correction, where the creditor basically agrees to adjust the information based on your good history as a customer.
This can be beneficial if you incurred negative credit report items on a technicality or due to extenuating circumstances that wouldn’t necessarily qualify for correction under dispute verification rules.
It’s basically the credit furnisher’s way of acknowledging that mistakes can happen, but often they aren’t worth ruining someone’s credit and potentially losing a customer. The bureaus don’t give consumers that allowance.
Only paid credit monitoring tools offer this type of integrated dispute service, so making disputes this way isn’t exactly free. However, if you plan on getting a credit monitoring tool anyway in your quest to achieve a better score, this can be a highly beneficial added bonus for your money.
Article last modified on January 20, 2023. Published by Debt.com, LLC