Your credit score is only as good as the information on your credit reports. When a credit report doesn't paint an accurate or complete picture of your credit history, that’s when you need credit repair. You can do it yourself, or you can hire a credit repair company to help.
Leslie Tayne, financial attorney and author of "Life & Debt: A Fresh Approach to Achieving Financial Wellness," said, “Credit report errors are extremely common. The more negative or misinformation you remove from your credit reports, the healthier your credit score will become.”
Tayne has more than 20 years of experience as a New York-based debt-relief lawyer and is the founder and managing director of Tayne Law Group. We asked her to break down what consumers should know about credit repair, the professionals who offer credit repair services, and maintaining a strong, accurate credit report long term. Here’s what she told us over the phone and via email.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Credit Repair 101
Let’s start at the beginning: What is credit repair?
At a very basic level, credit repair is about cleaning up your credit report to boost your credit score. Credit repair agencies try to help individuals improve their credit scores by reviewing their credit reports and correcting or removing negative or incorrect information that was bringing down the score.
What are some examples of common credit report errors?
Credit repair companies look for accounts incorrectly reported to the credit bureaus as delinquent or late, closed accounts reported as open, accounts that falsely list an authorized user as an account owner, and accounts that don’t actually belong to the individual.
Does credit repair cost money?
If you do it on your own, it's free, but if you go through an agency, there are different levels of services, and fees are usually charged monthly. As far as the exact costs go, I’ve seen crazy numbers ranging from less than $30 per month up to $100 per month or more. Credit repair agencies may try to sell you all kinds of things, but no matter what, they have to disclose the costs upfront.
The Credit Repair Process
How do credit repair companies go about getting errors fixed or information taken off a consumer's credit report?
Credit repair companies will submit disputes to the credit bureaus on the consumer's behalf. A dispute is a formal request to verify the accuracy of a piece of information on the credit report. Credit bureaus have 30 days to respond to a dispute and during that time, the items being disputed aren't factored into the individual's credit score. If they're unable to verify the disputed information on the report, they must fix or remove it entirely.
Is that something only those credit repair companies can do?
No, most of that stuff you can do on your own. You can contact the credit bureaus and the creditors yourself. It's always a good idea to access credit reports from all three bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) to verify that information is consistent across the board. If you find an error on one credit report, they'll likely be present on the other two, or not even reported there. It could be as simple as contacting the creditor to update the reporting, and if that doesn't work, then there is the option to send a dispute letter to the bureaus.
So is there anything you’d get by working with a credit repair company that you wouldn’t get by fixing credit report errors on your own?
Working with a credit repair agency could certainly save you the time and frustration of trying to navigate the credit world yourself. They will also know what can and cannot be done with a credit report, whereas an individual may not even know where to begin.
Credit repair companies may also include legal action as part of the credit repair process if disputing information doesn't produce results. This can be in the form of a cease-and-desist letter to debt collectors on your behalf, but not every credit repair company will offer this and the process could vary by company and the individual’s needs.
How long does credit repair take?
It's not an overnight process. A consumer should expect it to take three to six months to resolve most of the disputed debts. On the lower end, you could be looking at 30 days. If there are lots of issues, it could take over a year.
Finding Credit Repair Help
What should consumers watch for when seeking help from a credit repair company?
As soon as I hear consumers tell me that somebody was guaranteed something, I pause. That's a red flag. I've been in the debt resolution industry for well over 20 years, and the one guarantee I can make is that there are no guarantees.
Sometimes promises to get rid of things on credit reports are not always realistic. There are a lot of factors that are beyond anybody's control. The credit repair agency still has to go to the credit bureaus and then to the creditors for resolution. They cannot make the change themselves. Because of all the variables, they can’t really promise a definitive timeline either, and if they do, that’s concerning. If a company asks for money upfront, that’s also a red flag to me.
It's no different, in some ways, to having your car fixed. You could open the hood of my car and be able to tell me that there's 10 things wrong with it, but I won’t know what I’m looking at.
And I can only hope that I went to an honest and reliable mechanic who doesn't take advantage of that opportunity—a consumer who doesn't really have an understanding of what's under the hood. It's the same thing in the credit world. The language, the definitions, the lingo can be so foreign that it becomes challenging to know what you're looking for, especially when you get on the phone with a really good, fast-talking salesperson. They're going to sell you their service or product, so the key is to make sure that you work with a reliable agency.
Credit repair companies can offer services in most states, but not all. Before you pursue credit repair help, make sure it’s legal where you live.
That makes sense. How do you find a reliable credit repair agency?
You have to do your research and ask questions. Talk to other people who might've had experiences with those agencies, and then be your own advocate. Define what you are looking for. Say, "This is what I'm looking to do... Is that realistic, or am I not understanding the process well?" A good credit repair agency should be able to tell you what they can and cannot do for you upfront.
Are there any consumer protections in place for credit repair?
There are. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act you have the right to clean up your credit report so it is accurate. And then there's something called the Credit Repair Organizations Act, which also regulates the credit repair industry. It gives you the right to authorize somebody to make disputes on your behalf, but the main purpose of that Credit Repair Organizations Act is to set parameters to companies or organizations that offer credit repair services. For example, a credit repair agency can't claim exactly how much their service would improve that score. They also can't alter somebody's identity, or charge advanced fees.
Credit Counseling vs. Credit Repair
What’s the difference between credit counseling and credit repair?
Those are two completely different ball games. Credit repair has to do with looking at the credit report, disputing errors and inaccuracies, or otherwise managing what's on the credit report. Credit counseling is a service that educates consumers about things like budgeting and dealing with debt. Think of it like a broad coaching program that covers many different areas of personal finance. Credit repair simply focuses on the black and white of credit reports.
Do credit counseling agencies ever offer credit repair services?
Credit Report Maintenance
What are some things consumers can do to keep their credit report in good shape without using a credit repair company, or after working with one?
The number one thing people should be doing is checking their credit reports at least once a year. Really take a good look at the type of debt, how much debt you have, and the debt-to-available-credit ratio [also called your credit utilization ratio] on your credit reports. See if there's old information that shouldn't be on there any more, or errors.
You're entitled to one free credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus each year from AnnualCreditReport.com.
You could also set up credit alerts. It’s very important that you know who's checking your credit, and when, so you can spearhead anything that might be potentially fraudulent right when you get a notice. I think that's really important for keeping your credit score healthy.
If you make credit management part of your regular financial lifestyle, like budgeting, then you can manage issues when they pop up and you might not need somebody to fix a bigger issue later.