If you don’t have a good credit score, you may have trouble getting approved for loans or credit cards, or you may only qualify for high interest rates. It makes sense to want to improve your situation right away, but fixing your credit requires patience.
Companies may offer paid services for repairing credit, but armed with time and the right information, you can figure out how to fix credit yourself.
“The difference is the time and the education,” says Stephanie Yates, director of the Regions Institute for Financial Education and chair of the department of accounting and finance at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Frankly, that’s how some less reputable firms make a lot of money — kind of preying on that lack of knowledge and lack of time.”
Should You Use a Credit Repair Company?
If you are considering a credit repair company, you should be on the lookout for scams. Even a company that is legitimate could charge you hundreds of dollars for services you could have performed on your own.
“Oftentimes, these organizations charge for things that consumers can do themselves, and there’s nothing that really replaces just wise credit habits” such as making on-time payments, says Barry Coleman, vice president of program management and education at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
If a company engages in actions such as demanding payment before it provides services or instructs you not to get in touch with the credit bureaus directly, the company is selling a scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The Credit Repair Organizations Act makes it illegal for credit repair companies to charge you before providing services and to make misleading statements about your credit, among other practices.
Companies might also use a “jamming technique,” which involves overloading the credit bureaus with disputes, Yates says. Credit bureaus typically have 30 days to investigate disputes, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “If the credit bureau can’t verify the derogatory information, then they have to remove it,” Yates says, and this can provide a window when a consumer’s credit may look better than it should. “But if the creditor just sends a new file with that derogatory information again, then it just goes right back on.”
As a result, this strategy only provides short-term results. Plus, knowingly providing false information to credit bureaus is illegal, Yates says.
You can also use the funds you would have paid the credit repair company to pay down your debts. “That in itself will improve your credit score on its own. It just takes a little bit of time,” says Jorge Soriano, founder and CEO of Financial Optimist, a financial planning firm.
[READ: Best Bad Credit Loans. ]
How to Repair Your Credit on Your Own
You can work on your credit without getting a credit repair company involved. The following steps can help you get started.
Check Your Credit Report and Score
For now, you can get a free copy of each of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus once a week at AnnualCreditReport.com. After that, you can get each of the reports once a year.
“We always recommend that if someone is curious about their financial situation that they start with getting copies of their credit report,” Coleman says.
Your credit report features information about your accounts, payment history and more, but it does not include a credit score — the number between 300 and 850 that lenders use to evaluate credit applications. There are several ways to check your credit score for free, including through your monthly statement from most major credit card issuers.
Dispute Information on Your Report, As Needed
The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives consumers the right to dispute errors in their credit reports. Errors can include duplicate accounts, unauthorized credit inquiries or accounts incorrectly listed as late.
To find errors, Yates recommends printing out your report and reviewing it line by line. You can file disputes with each of the three major credit bureaus online, by mail or by phone. You’ll also want to get in touch with the source of the incorrect information — this could be your bank or your cellphone company, for example, according to the CFPB.
If consumers see late payments on their report that they don’t remember or aren’t sure are accurate, they can dispute those as well. “You can say, ‘I’m just not sure; can you prove to me that I was late?’ And so that’s worthwhile also,” Yates says.
Get in Touch With Your Creditors
In some cases, you may be able to get damaging information removed from your report even if it is accurate. For example, if your report notes a credit card payment that was 60 days late, you can call the credit card company and ask if it can be removed. You’ll have better chances if the account is open, and even stronger odds if it is in good standing, Yates says. “If it’s a closed account or it’s gone to collections, there’s really not a lot of incentive for the company to help you, but it still doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth trying.”
If you have an unpaid account in collections, you can try to negotiate with the debt collector to pay less than the total amount owed. “Once it’s cleared, whatever you negotiate, they may be willing to remove it from your credit report as well,” Yates says. “At a minimum, you don’t want it to be showing as unpaid, and if it is paid, it’s still worth it to ask them if they’d be willing to take it off, because they got their money.”
Write a Statement
Consumers whose credit problems are related to a circumstance such as a medical crisis or divorce can add a brief statement to their credit report explaining the situation. This typically won’t help you with instant credit decisions but can be useful when someone reviews your report in detail, such as for a mortgage, Yates says.
Practice Good Credit Habits
Beyond these steps, you’ll also want to practice good credit habits, including making on-time payments and lowering your credit utilization. Make sure you know what factors make up your credit score as you work to improve it.
[Read: Best Secured Credit Cards.]
How Can You Get Help with Your Credit?
If you want help getting your finances in line, you can look into nonprofit credit counseling.
“Nonprofit credit counseling organizations such as NFCC members will do a comprehensive review of a consumer’s financial situation,” Coleman says. “We’d help them look at their income, their debts, their living expenses, and then make recommendations based on what we see for improvements to their situation.”
Recommendations could include increasing income with part-time or new employment or cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Coleman also points to the CFPB and the FTC as reliable government sources for information consumers can use to improve their financial situations.
Consumers can also consider programs such as Experian Boost, Yates says. Experian Boost is a free service from the credit bureau Experian that allows payments such as cellphone and utility bills to factor into your credit score. “That would be something that someone can do if they’re looking to increase their credit score quickly — just broaden the payments that are considered when calculating their score,” Yates says.
How Long Does It Take to Repair Your Credit?
In many cases, your credit score will go up after mistakes on your report are resolved, according to myFICO.com.
After you correct any errors, improving your score will take time. “Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes,” Coleman says. “It does take time. But usually after six months to a year of on-time payments and keeping those balances low, they’ll start to see some improvement, and then it will continue to improve over time.”
Most negative information stays on your credit report for seven years, but more recent items have a bigger effect. “The items that are on the credit report that were reported in the last 24 months or so usually are weighed the highest, and so if (consumers) start today towards improving it, they will see the results sooner than later,” Coleman says.
With patience and persistence, you will start to see changes. “Don’t lose confidence, don’t lose hope that it’s taking a couple of extra months or that it’s not getting fixed as quickly as you had desired,” Soriano says.
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