Your credit score dictates a lot about your financial situation, so it’s understandable that you want to protect your score and keep it as high as possible. If past financial mistakes are dragging down your credit score, there are legitimate ways to try to correct them.
Credit counselors may help you find ways to improve your score and get your finances back on track. However, the credit repair industry is riddled with scams, so it’s important to know how to avoid them.
“People can do credit repair on their own. There’s really no good reason to pay for it,” says Michael Bovee, co-founder of debt relief company Resolve.
How to help yourself
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix mistakes on your credit report. The credit reporting bureaus aren’t perfect, and there can be legitimate problems with your score. For example, something may have been reported as unpaid when it was actually satisfied, or a mark against your credit score may stay on your credit history longer than it should. Sometimes other people’s information winds up on your report.
If you see something that isn’t yours or isn’t right, Bovee suggests you take care of it.
“You don’t need a credit repair company for that,” he says.
You have the right to dispute inaccurate information on your credit report, and the credit bureau has 30 days to investigate and fix the mistake if it decides your dispute is valid.
With legitimate disputes, “there is nothing a credit repair company can do for you that you can’t do for yourself,” Bovee says.
If you’re working with a credit repair company that tells you only they have the method to get your credit corrected, and that you cannot do what they can yourself for free, it’s likely a scam.
Another red flag: “If someone tells you that they can get accurate, complete, up-to-date information removed from your credit report, I would avoid them,” Bovee says.
The problem is that consumers get desperate when they can’t reach their financial goals – like qualifying for a mortgage – because of their credit score, Bovee says. They turn to credit repairers, buying into the companies’ claims of cleaning up reports. But even if consumers do see their score climb after working with a credit repairer, those fixes tend to be temporary.
Credit repair companies often send out canned letters to credit bureaus challenging parts of your credit report, Bovee says. This means they may dispute accurate items on the report. Sometimes a disputed item comes off your credit report while it’s being investigated, but then pops back up in mere months if the report is proven accurate.
Another trouble sign is if the credit repair company charges you before it does anything.
“Charging in advance of providing the service is a no-no,” Bovee says.
You should never pay upfront for services from a credit repair company. The Credit Repair Organizations Act states that these companies shouldn’t request or receive payment until they have completed the promised services.
Some of these companies may even urge you to do something illegal to improve your score.
“Anything that is like, ‘Hey, we’ll just create a new consumer profile for you so you can start fresh,’ stay away from that. It’s fraud,” Bovee says.
Credit repair scams may try to split your identity by having you apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), which is different from your Social Security number.
Where to turn instead
For help dealing with credit bureaus on discrepancies, Bovee suggests finding an attorney who focuses on credit reporting and knows the ins and outs of the law. Although this might be a more expensive option, a reputable attorney will produce results specific to your case, he says.
“Those are the people that I would want to write me a letter,” he says. “I have a higher level of trust and a higher degree of confidence that the results that they get are sticky.”
If you think you have been scammed by a credit repair company, Bovee recommends that you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In the meantime, two of the best ways to improve your credit score are to pay down your debt and pay your bills on time. That’s not fancy and not always quick, but you can do those things yourself and — along with disputing errors — do them for free.