Most people don't check their credit scores, but millions of Americans' credit
reports contain mistakes that can affect their ability to qualify for a loan
or make credit more expensive to obtain, according to a new government study
One in five consumers, or about 40 million people, have an error on at least one of their credit reports from the three main credit rating bureaus. Errors could cause them to pay more for financial products such as auto loans, mortgages or insurance, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission study that examined nearly 3,000 credit reports.
One in five participants in the FTC's study disputed an error and had it corrected, according to results. The FTC study, commissioned by Congress, also found one in 10 participants had errors in their credit history that when corrected, changed their credit scores.
The credit bureaus Experian, Equifax and TransUnion maintain information on about 200 million consumers, according to the federal agency.
The findings show consumers should regularly check their credit reports, FTC officials said.
Federal law entitles people to one free credit report from each of the three major agencies every 12 months. The federal agency suggests using annualcreditreport.com to get a free report.
Credit reports are used to make decisions on credit worthiness for a wide range of circumstances such as obtaining a new loan, new job or renting an apartment, said Bob Schoshinski, FTC assistant director, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.
"Consumers should know these types of errors could affect their credit rating and therefore affect their ability to get credit or the rates they get when they buy a car or a house," Schoshinski said.
The Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit reporting agencies and other data companies, said the FTC study showed that the proportion of credit reports with errors that could increase the rates consumers would pay was small.
The study confirmed "that credit reports are highly accurate, and play a critical role in facilitating access to fair and affordable consumer credit," the association said in a statement.
But the average citizen has a difficult time trying to fix an error on a credit report, said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. It's a flawed system that is under investigation by the office, DeWine said.
"It's a system that is for the convenience of the credit reporting agency, but is not designed to find out what really should be on the person's credit," DeWine said. "When you get a bad credit score, it can have a devastating impact on you and your family and many times people don't know they've got this bad score."
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency overseeing consumer financial products and services, estimates 44 million consumers check one of their credit reports every year.
Mistakes can enter reports by consumers providing inaccurate data when applying for a loan, or if the creditor furnishing data to the credit bureau enters inaccurate consumer information. Bureaus can match consumer information to the wrong individual consumer file. Also, inaccuracies can happen to victims of identity fraud, the Consumer Protection Bureau found in a separate study released in December.
Items reported by debt collection agencies to credit bureaus have the highest dispute rates, according to the CFPB report.
The wrong middle initial or a Social Security number with one number off "are the things that can cause a creditor to report items on your credit report that are not legitimately yours," said Melodee Sheils, director of nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Miami Valley.
"The kinds of things that cause a score to get lowered is they're not paying their bills on time, they're not making the minimum payment, or their debt levels are too high," Sheils said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
To check a credit report
Credit reports can be obtained online at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228.
To dispute error on credit report
Ohio Attorney General's Office
Help center 1-800-282-0515
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