Writing a Dispute Letter Based on Fair Credit Reporting Act Regulations
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that you request “reinvestigation” of disputed items before suing an entity that has provided an inaccuracy to a credit reporting agency. This is a “last chance” letter, giving both the credit furnishers and the credit reporting agencies the ability to fix the problem.
What Is a Credit Dispute Letter?
While the FCRA and other statutes require companies to respond and take steps to investigate a consumer’s credit dispute, there is only one letter that counts for purposes of the FCRA: A letter of dispute to the credit bureau that is reporting the false or inaccurate information. Nonetheless, consumers should write a dispute letter to the credit bureau that as reporting the disputed information as well as the company that provided that information to the credit bureaus (called a furnisher).
It is important to distinguish between these two entities, credit bureaus and furnishers:
- Credit reporting agencies, which publish credit reports and credit scores.Experian, TransUnion and Equifax are the three main agencies and must provide you with free copies of your credit report annually upon your request. They must also independently investigate any disputes of credit information which appears on your report.
- Furnishers, which are the banks, credit companies, debt collectors, and all others who provide credit reporting agencies with your credit history, performance and information.
The FCRA requires that you draft a credit report dispute letter directly to the credit reporting agency – not the furnisher — as a condition of being able to sue.
While the credit reporting agency can be held liable without first receiving a dispute letter under some circumstances, not so with furnishers. Unless the consumer has written to Equifax, TransUnion or Experian, there is no claim under the FCRA against the furnisher of information to those credit bureaus. So long as you write a letter to the credit bureau, both may be held responsible for harm to you and your credit report.
Many attorneys and consumers have not written these letters and will not know how to. A knowledgeable and experienced consumer attorney who is familiar with the reinvestigation process can draft letters for you to sign.
What to Consider and Include in Your Dispute Letter
What follows are guidelines for your dispute letter that can help you dispute inaccurate information on your credit report under FCRA, and potentially repair your credit. Many of these suggestions arise out of cases where consumers have either lost their case or successfully defeated attempts by credit bureaus to dismiss their case.
The Reason to Write a Credit Report Dispute Letter
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you may dispute what you believe is inaccurate information in your credit file. By submitting your dispute to the credit reporting agency, you put the bureau on notice that they are publishing inaccurate information and give them the opportunity to correct the problem. A credit report dispute letter also begins the process of protecting your rights under the FCRA. We want to provide enough information that, if your case ever goes to trial and your correspondence is submitted as evidence, it would cause a reasonable juror to scratch their head at why the credit bureau refused to remove the item.
Determine What Form of Dispute to Make
The disputes that you submit to the credit reporting agencies are important for many reasons, not the least of which is that these reinvestigations may become the subject of a lawsuit if you are unsuccessful in resolving the matter informally. As such, these reinvestigations should be treated as though they will become evidence in your lawsuit.
Write them neatly, with a polite but firm tone. Do not include a long story, resort to foul language or start name-calling. Include any supporting documentation on your credit history or credit repair efforts that you have available. Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested.
Complications of Disputing by Telephone
Even though the credit reporting agencies offer you the opportunity to dispute by telephone, this avenue is fraught with problems. In some cases, credit bureaus may deny that any request for investigation occurred at all. Telephone disputes do not allow you to easily make a record of what was disputed or the evidence that was offered to the agency and they do not provide any opportunity to submit supporting documentation.
Phone calls may be used as a means of following up on a prior credit dispute. If you decide in favor of a credit dispute by phone, make sure to preserve the evidence of the call, such as recording, making notes, and keeping a call log. Check your state laws covering the recording of phone calls or consult a local attorney to find out if this is legal.
Complications of Disputing Electronically
Electronic disputes suffer from some of the same problems that telephone disputes do, and more. Many of the credit reporting agencies require you to navigate through a number of pop-up boxes before acting on your credit file. These pop-up boxes often contain waivers of your rights, including your right to sue in a court with a jury. You may not be given an opportunity to keep copies of these waivers, and you may not even read them before consenting. Since you cannot proceed with the electronic dispute without agreeing to these waivers, you should not begin this process. Again, written disputes, sent certified mail to the address specified by the credit reporting agency, is the preferred means.
Keep Copies at Every Step
Do not rely on the credit reporting agencies to keep copies of your disputes. (They do not even keep copies of the reports that they publish about you.) Often, these disputes are misplaced and never acted upon by the bureaus. Your dispute should be sent certified mail, return receipt requested. Additionally, the bureaus may only keep records for two years, and the history of your dispute may extend over five or ten years. You should make a complete photocopy of the dispute in the exact form that it was sent to the bureaus, signature and exhibits included. Store these copies in a safe place so that it can be easily retrieved if you have to refer to it again or need it for evidence. Better yet, scan copies and keep them safe on your computer and a backup site.
Understand Your Audience
Your initial audience includes the individuals opening your letter, likely “boiler room operators,” staring at computer screens, insulated from any real access to data about your credit dispute. But remember that your audience might later include the judge, jury and opposing counsel. Everything you are drafting may ultimately become a trial exhibit. So, make the letter plain, clear, and easy to understand. It must be absolutely accurate and truthful.
Why You Should Send the Dispute Letter to the Relevant CRAs and the Furnisher
If the only thing you do is to write a letter to a furnisher of credit data, then you will have no claim at all against that creditor if you need to bring a law suit. While the FCRA requires that furnishers respond to direct disputes and conduct investigations of the dispute, is also clearly states thatyou cannot sue them unless you have directed a dispute letter about the data to the credit bureaus that are reporting that information. Many people are confused and frustrated by this, but this is the law.
In order to properly dispute false information, you must direct your dispute to the credit reporting agency. Once the agency has received the dispute, it will forward a summary of the dispute to the furnisher, which will trigger an enforceable duty on the part of that furnisher to conduct an investigation. If the furnisher verifies the disputed information, you can sue both the credit bureau and the company that provided the information to the credit bureau.
While sending a letter to the furnisher will not trigger an enforceable statutory duty, there are other important reasons to send a letter to the furnisher. First, the furnisher still has a duty to conduct an investigation using all materials that are reasonably available to it. This can mean a dispute letter that has been copied to it by the consumer can provide a better chance of holding that furnisher responsible if they do not correct their actions. More importantly, if the letter to the furnisher contains information which no reasonable person could have ignored, that letter may improve your chances of getting the item corrected.
In short, you should direct your dispute letter to the CRA in order to trigger the private right of action, but you should also prepare a cover letter and copy for the furnisher. This two-pronged approach will to improve your chances of successfully disputing, and preserve your rights if you need to sue.
Make your Dispute Detailed
Your dispute should contain enough facts and details to support the credibility of your dispute. The more details you provide, the more credible your dispute will appear. Remember that the details should relate directly to your dispute and the documents that support it. Do not go into side issues that distract. Details like names, phone numbers, email addresses and contact information add to the credibility of your dispute and provide information to help the credit bureau conduct its independent investigation into your dispute.
Include Relevant Documents
Include documentation that supports your dispute. If you are reporting an identity theft, you should be sure to include any information, affidavits or police reports relating the theft. If you have been a victim of a mixed file, you should include copies of whatever reports you have showing the problem, which may include subscriber copies of reports, tri-merges, or consumer disclosures. If you have won a court case about the dispute, include those papers as well.
The important point is, whatever type of item you have to show that you are telling the truth, include it with the dispute letter. Whatever documents you include, be sure to mention the enclosures by name in the body of your letter; bureaus are notorious for losing these documents and claiming they were never sent.
Provide Samples of Your Signature
In those cases where someone has forged your signature, be sure to include samples of your own signature, along with a notary signature where appropriate. Notarization is an attestation that the document actually comes from the individual who signed the document. The fact that the document is notarized, is itself proof of the identity of the individual who signed. Providing these pieces of evidence will invite the CRA to perform a comparison on its own. As always, call out any attachments by name in the correspondence so the CRAs cannot claim not to have received them (which happens often). And keep copies of anything you send!
Invite Further Correspondence and Provide Preferred Contact Information
Include relevant contact information, including a cell phone number and email address. Let the bureau know that you are willing to help or provide more information that may be necessary. Make yourself easy to find. If you want fast results, provide the recipients with the ability to contact you quickly and conveniently. While some creditors do not interact with customers over the internet, many have email capabilities. You should invite their use and advise the recipient that you can transmit and receive documents by this means if you have that capability.
Respond to Correspondence Appropriately
Be sure to carefully review and respond to any correspondence returned by the agency. In many cases, the bureaus respond to disputes by either refusing to investigate or by demanding that you take additional steps that may be self-contradictory. If the agency’s response is confusing or self-contradictory, point that out in your response and ask for clarification. Again, send your correspondence by certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep copies of what you send.
At the conclusion of the reinvestigation process (and sometimes during that process), the credit reporting agencies may notify you how they conducted the reinvestigation. Frequently, those notices will explain that the information provided could not be used, or that there was not enough information provided by you. If your reinvestigation request is denied for any reason, you should immediately follow up with the bureau and request an explanation. If the materials you submitted were rejected, ask why. If the results do not make sense, explain why they don’t make sense to you and ask that the process be done again. Remember, common sense rules the day, and you are free to point this out forcefully, but respectfully.
Refer to Prior Disputes by Date
In many instances, items that you are disputing have been disputed previously, and possibly removed previously. If this is the case, include a reference to the prior reinvestigations and results. If the item was removed, incorporate the information that you included previously. If the item was not removed in the previous dispute, summarize that information again and provide whatever additional information you may have assembled.
Refer to Prior Account Numbers When Available
In many instances, furnishers of credit data will change account numbers on your accounts. These changes can play havoc with your ability to track your credit file. For instance, when a credit card account is compromised by fraud, the credit card company will typically close that account, open a new account and transfer all account charges to the new account. At the same time, debt collectors who buy accounts typically assign each account a new number when that account is received. When any of these things happen, the consumer may no longer recognize his or her own account.
By the same token, if an account has reappeared on a consumer report, many times the consumer reporting agencies do not correlate accounts with their prior account numbers. You may have to re-dispute these items. In cases where you know the prior account numbers used to identify a disputed debt, you should include these account numbers in your dispute along with the name of the company that assigned the number.
Ask for Specific Actions
The Fair Credit Reporting Act provides for several informal remedies as part of the dispute process. These remedies can include:
✓ Placing a fraud alert on your file.
✓ Freezing or blocking access to the file for instant credit checks.
✓ Blocking fraud accounts if you provided a police report or a fraud affidavit.
✓ Requiring the consumer reporting agency to explain its processes.
✓ Requiring the consumer reporting agency to provide updated copies of reports.
✓ Requiring the furnisher of information that has been disputed as fraudulent to turn over account documents.
So, when you draft your dispute, be sure to include appropriate requests for help. These requests, while often ignored by the CRA, can help to establish that the bureaus have thrown roadblocks into your path.
You Sign the Letter, not the Attorney
You should sign your own dispute letter, instead of an attorney who may have drafted the letter for you. Attorneys who sign and mail their client’s dispute letter run the risk of becoming a necessary, material witness in their client’s case. A smart attorney knows in this case never to sign a dispute letter on their client’s behalf.
The credit reporting agencies have, as of late, begun demanding an excessive amount of identification from consumers before providing disclosures. In some instances, they have begun demanding that this identification before investigating disputes. If this happens, your dispute can be delayed by several months. You can head off these problems by including identification in your dispute or request for a report. You should include at least one form of photo identification and a current bank or utility bill. When you send the letter, be sure to keep a copy of all enclosures, and as we’ve said, name the attachments in your letter as further proof you’ve sent them.
If you’ve made it this far, wonderful. You are on your way to asserting your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Bookmark this blog post and refer back to it when needed, or share it with a friend or family member who needs the information. If you find this blog post helpful, like us on Facebook.
Additional Credit Reporting Resources
Below you will find a few resources to help along the way. Thanks for reading. See you again soon!
- Disputing Errors on Credit Reports
- What You Should Know About Your Credit Report
- The Annual Credit Report order form
- Sample dispute letter from the FTC
- How do I dispute at error on my credit report? (from the CFPB)
If you need help with these or other consumer rights issues, give us a call at (248) 965-5751 or use our contact form here.