If it's been a while, you might want to take a look at your credit report.
The Federal Trade Commission this week released a study that shows one in four reports reviewed contained an error that could impact credit scores. The report also found that one in every 20 consumers had errors that could cause consumers to pay higher rates for loans, insurance and other financial services.
The FTC research is a wake-up call, said Francine Giani, head of the Utah Department of Commerce.
"I'm surprised, but maybe not too surprised," she said. "When I speak in public, I'll ask people, when was the last time you checked your credit? In the last two years? No hands. In the last five years? No hands. A lot of people just forget to do it."
By law, consumers are entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. To get a copy, visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
In this congressionally-mandated study, the FTC reviewed 2,968 credit reports and encouraged the reports' owners to dispute errors they believed would affect their access to credit. In addition consumers finding errors in at least one of their credit reports, the FTC also found that four of five consumers who disputed an item saw some change in their credit reports. About one in 20 who claimed an error had a score change of more than 25 points.
In a news release, Howard Shelansky, director of the FTC's Bureau of Economics, said not checking credit reports could mean putting your pocketbook at risk.
"These are eye-opening numbers for American consumers," he said. "The results of this first-of-its-kind study make it clear that consumers should check their credit reports regularly."
A statement by the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit report agencies, said in a statement that the FTC study "reconfirmed the findings of several recent studies that conclude that credit reports are highly accurate and play a critical role in facilitating access to fair and affordable consumer credit."
So what should you do if you believe your credit report is wrong?
It takes legwork.
Contact the credit reporting company in writing about what you suspect is an error and include copies of any documentation that supports your claim. The companies must check it out within 30 days. If that doesn't happen, you should let the FTC know about it. You'll also want to write to the creditor about your dispute and send along supporting documents.
Giani said there's no need to hire a credit repair company.
"It takes a little work, but it's an important thing to do," she said.
The new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has the authority to write and enforce rules for the credit reporting industry. In September the agency began ongoing monitoring of the credit agencies' compliance. It's the first time they have faced such close federal oversight.
The CFPB hasn't yet taken any public action against the agencies. However, it is accepting complaints from consumers who discover incorrect information on their reports or have trouble getting mistakes corrected. To file a credit reporting complaint, go to www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint, or call 1-855-411-CFPB (2372)
The Associated Press contributed to this story
To order a credit report
You're entitled to a free credit report once a year through the three national credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. To get a copy of your free report, visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
If you find an error
Write to the respective credit agency (www.equifax.com, www.experian.com, www.transunion.com) and provide copies of documents that support your claim.
Contact the FTC if you don't get a response in 30 days.
Write to your creditors about disputes and include copies of documents.
Still not getting anywhere? Try the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency with the authority to write and enforce rules for the credit reporting industry and to monitor the compliance of the three agencies. To file a credit reporting complaint, go to www.consumerfinance.gov/Complaint, or call 1-855-411-CFPB (2372).The credit reporting agencies have 15 days to respond to the complaints with a plan for fixing the problem; consumers can dispute that response.