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PERSONAL FINANCE
Only time will solve bad reports on credit

Ann Perry

May 5, 2002

For some problems, there are no quick fixes.

A bad credit record is one of them. Despite all the ads that promise to clear up your credit history, there is no fast way to erase negative information in your files if the information is correct.

" 'Credit repair' is really a misnomer," says Paul S. Richard, RFC, executive director of the San Diego-based nonprofit Institute of Consumer Financial Education. "If something is genuinely broken, you don't fix it. The only thing that works is time."

Deanne Loonin, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center in Boston and co-author of the book "Credit Repair," concurs.

"If there is bad information on your report that is accurate," she says, "there is little you can do except wait until the information becomes obsolete."

Some San Diegans, however, have learned this lesson the hard way after wasting money on fraudulent credit-repair schemes.

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario, according to credit counselors, attorneys and law enforcement officials who try to help those with debt and credit problems. Authorities say such schemes almost never provide consumers a service of real value.

That shouldn't be so surprising. Borrowers themselves are the only ones who can positively impact their credit records by changing their behavior.

Many people with credit problems, however, don't really want to change, Richard says. That's why they fall for the false salvation of credit-repair gimmicks: "All the consumers want is to continue spending."

For those who do want what a good credit record can bring lower interest rates on credit cards, the ability to buy a home and even the opportunity for better jobs there is hope. But it will mean learning to live within a budget and being vigilant about making payments on time.

"You can do a lot to rebuild your credit," Loonin says, "but only if you're back on your feet financially."

Here's how to get started:

Get your cash flow under control. You need to know how much money is coming in each month, how much is going out, and exactly how you are spending each dollar. The best approach is to keep track of everything you spend for two months. If you seem to have more "month" than money and you're having trouble devising a budget, you can take a class on budgeting at Springboard Non-Profit Consumer Credit Management. For information, call (888) 462-2227 or visit the following Web site: www.credit.org.

Understand how credit bureaus work. These for-profit companies gather information on the credit histories of consumers, then sell them to lenders, banks, insurance companies and landlords. The sources of their information are usually creditors and collection agencies. But they also search legal records for bankruptcies, judgments and property liens.

Your credit history lists your different accounts, how long you've had them, how much credit you've received and your repayment record.

"A company looks at your credit history to see if they can make money doing business with you," Richard says. If your history shows a poor track record of repayments, companies will conclude they could lose money extending you credit.

Order copies of your credit report. It's smart to order copies of your credit report from all three of the major credit bureaus. Reports typically cost about $9 each or $35 for all three when you order them all at once through online sites such as www.qspace.com and www.creditreport-net.com.

Here's how to contact the three credit bureaus individually: Equifax, P.O. Box 105873, Atlanta, GA 30348, (800) 685-1111, www.credit.equifax.com; Experian, National Consumers Assistance Center, P.O. Box 2002, Allen, TX 75013, (888) 397-3742, www.experian.com; Trans Union, Consumer Disclosure Center, P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022, (800) 888-4213, www.tuc.com.

Federal law entitles you to a free copy of your credit report if you: have been denied credit because of information in the report and you request a copy within 60 days; are unemployed and intend to apply for a job within 60 days of your request; receive public assistance; or believe your report contains errors due to fraud.

Look for information that is out of date or incorrect. Negative information that is accurate becomes out of date at a certain point, notes Loonin. After seven years, lawsuits, paid tax liens, late payments and accounts sent out for collection should drop off your record.

Bankruptcies are supposed to fall away 10 years after discharge, though most Chapter 13 bankruptcies are listed for only seven years. Credit inquiries, or requests to see your report, should stay on your report no more than two years.

In addition, check for the following errors: incorrect name; incorrect Social Security number; incorrect account histories; and accounts listed as open that have been closed. If you find an error, complete a "request for reinvestigation" form from the credit bureau and send it with a letter explaining what is wrong. The bureau must look into the matter and contact you within 30 days. If you are trying to get a mortgage or a car loan, you can request a rush investigation.

Ask the credit bureaus to include positive information. If you're making payments on time to an account and that information isn't being reflected on your credit reports, mail your recent account statements to the credit bureaus and ask them to include that information.

Use credit to get credit. You need to show a history of good credit repayment. You can achieve this by doing something as simple as getting a credit card, making small purchases each month and paying them off on time.

Be patient. It might take as long as two years for your credit to recover to the point where you can get a credit card, and it can take as long as four years to qualify for a mortgage.

To order the book "Credit Repair" ($21.99) from self-help publisher Nolo, visit www.nolo.com or call (800) 728-3555. To order the ICFE's "The Do-It-Yourself Credit File Correction Guide," order online at www.financial-education-icfe.org or send $12.78 to ICFE, P.O. Box 34070, San Diego, CA 92163.

Perry can be reached at moneyperry@aol.com.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.












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