The three credit bureaus aren't the same. They all operate a little differently.

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One of the most common concerns we hear from readers is that their credit report contains errors or information they don’t understand or recognize. There are a number of reasons wrong information could be on your credit report; but the solution is often to dispute the information with the credit bureaus to get it removed from your report. But for some consumers, the problem doesn’t end there.

A reader contacted us recently, frustrated that a negative item on her credit reports remained in “dispute” status with one bureau; months after her disputes with the other bureaus had resulted in the item being removed. She wanted to know if she could at least get the item out of dispute status; because a dispute could delay her home buying dreams. That is a valid fear; it’s smart to check your credit before beginning to look for a house and to make sure your credit is in top shape, because a better credit score can mean lower interest rates, saving you thousands over the life of a mortgage.

Each of the major credit reporting agencies is required by federal law to give you one free credit report a year through (A credit report can look intimidating — here’s a cheat sheet to help you read them.)

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Here’s how the dispute process is supposed to work; Once you dispute information in your credit report, the credit reporting agency typically has 30 days to notify you of the results of its investigation. One possible result is letting you know that the creditor that furnished the information has verified that it was reported correctly. If that is not the case, the item is supposed to be removed. It’s worth noting that the three major credit bureaus do not share information; so when you dispute information with one, you are not guaranteed the same result with the other two. Each bureau does its own investigation.

In a case like our reader’s, where you are certain you disputed with the agency you intended; (she used online dispute forms); and that too much time has passed, you have a couple of options. One is to re-contact the credit reporting agency, explaining the situation (certified mail is a good way to do this, and the Federal Trade Commission has a sample letter here), and another is to contact a consumer law attorney for help.

Even if you are not looking to get approved for a mortgage; it’s still smart to keep tabs on your credit reports and scores. It can help you recognize and eliminate problems — such as fraud — before they become too big to overlook. (You can get a free credit report summary, updated every 30 days, from

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