Credit Reports 101: How To Find and Dispute Errors, Including Lost Student Loans

I removed an error from my latest credit report that resulted in a 77 point boost to my credit score.

It was a relatively painless process for me because I had been there before. I knew how to find an error and how to fix it. It wasn’t rocket science; it was just some basic personal finance skills put to use.

This experience inspired me to write an article on everything anyone would need to know about credit reports.

Before I go further, I’ll clear up two definitions: A credit report is not a credit score. Your credit report contains information that goes into determining your credit score, but these are two different things.

I am essentially bringing all my knowledge of the subject into one reference point.

Bear in mind that this as my approach, so please know there are elements of your credit report that I might not cover. If there’s something unique you would like me to cover, feel free to contact me to let me know or leave a comment below.

So, let’s begin.

Have you ever experienced finding a credit card or car loan on your report that wasn’t yours? This is what happened on my latest credit report. I found a 16k credit card with a 15.5k balance. A few headaches and phone calls later, it was removed. The result was that 77 point, overnight boost to my credit score.

Have you ever noticed a student loan disappear from your credit report? Did you feel like you could walk away from making any more payments? I mean, if the debt doesn’t show up as associated to you, it makes sense to not pay any more of it, right?

I remember the very first questions I had associated with credit reports: What is a credit report? How do I find my credit report? How do I improve my credit rating and is this the same thing as a credit report?

Additionally, why does it matter and why would you even want to know? Chances are high that we’ve all heard horror stories when it comes to credit reports.

Based on a recent study from 2013, 1 in 4 Americans have at least one error on their credit report. If you’re married or in a relationship with someone else, then between the two of you, you’re basically flipping a coin.

Why does your credit score matter?

In short, your credit score has the power to impact your ability to find gainful employment and to live in the home of your dreams.

The end result of checking my credit report is being aware of my financial situation and having the ability to improve my score. With an improved credit score, we don’t need to worry about our employer or loan officer rejecting us.

First, What Factors Make up a Credit Score?

Credit scores are made up of 6 factors: credit utilization, payment history, derogatory marks (such as late payments), age of credit, total accounts, and credit inquiries. I also happened to name these factors in the order of importance.

The largest determining factor in making up your credit score is what is called your credit utilization.

If you have a credit limit of $1,000 and you have a balance of $100, then your utilization is at 10%. Credit providers prefer to see a low utilization, typically in the 0-20% range.

It might seem odd that we should only use up a sliver of the credit we are given, but the typical view is someone who uses a large portion of their credit is more at risk for not paying back the loan in time.

The remaining factors are somewhat self-explanatory: it is better to have a long history of many accounts opened and timely paid, than it is to have one or two accounts with missing payments throughout.

One note, credit inquiries are not all the same.

There are hard inquiries which will negatively impact your credit score for some period of time. These have a low impact relative to the other factors.

Having just looked at my hard inquiries, I see some credit inquiries that will last less than 6 months and some that will last more than 2 years. It will depend on the hard inquiry itself.

There are also soft inquiries which DO NOT show up on your credit report. These are what you might hear about when being pre-approved for a credit card.


Second, What is a credit report and how can I view it for free?


The nice part here is that it takes maybe one or two hours, once a year to check these reports.

By law, the large three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) are required to provide a full report once a year, free of charge.

A smart financial habit is to check your credit reports once a year. While the report is free, the bureaus will not send it to us unless we request it.

Pro tip: Don’t check your credit report right before you go into work. It will lead to a disastrous morning as your mind will race about all the calls you can’t make. Source: my agony from a few months ago.

When we pull our credit reports, it will show the various loans in our name, along with any history of accounts, typically going back 7 years. Similarly, credit card history such as date of opening an account and timely payments will be included.

Pulling our credit reports will give us a history of our credit, BUT, it will not provide us with our current credit score.

Okay, so you might be thinking, checking our credit reports once a year seems like a very low maintenance activity. So, for those who want to keep their hand on the pulse throughout the year, I have some more tools you can use, again, being free of charge.

Third, How Can I More Routinely Check my Credit Score?

Once a year might not make sense, since credit fraud can happen at any moment, thus negatively impacting your credit score.

In the last year, I had a 2.5k charge on one of my credit cards for a spa weekend in Estonia. While I would have loved to enjoy some R&R on the Baltic, I can assure you, I didn’t. As Chief of Saving for a Downpayment, our budget for expensive foreign spas is $0.00.

I caught this fraudulent charge early with the help of the online tools I use. To help track of my finances, I use and

These are both free services in the US that do provide and advertise for paid products and services.

I have heard of similar such services offered by different companies in other countries.

Mint is the ability to track all your expenses. You can also link in your assets & liabilities, bringing together a nice summary of your financial net worth. I use Mint as a tool for budgeting and its been great. is able to track your credit score with weekly updates. The score might not be 100% accurate, but in cases such as mine, it can indicate when something significant happens.

To go into a few more details, Credit Karma does not provide your FICO score and the algorithm they use to determine a score might not be the same one used by your lender. This is why the score on Credit Karma might be drastically different than what your loan officer tells you.

Fourth, How to Dispute & Fix a Errors in Credit Reports

As mentioned above, 1 in 4 of us have errors in our credit reports.

When credit scores are used to determine the likelihood of being accepted for a job or applying for a mortgage, then it is scary to think we can be denied for someone else’s mistakes.

Regardless of how it ends up there, we have the power to remove errors. Sadly, finding an error is much, much easier than removing it.

There are few routes you can take here and it depends on the type of error you find.

In my case, there was a credit card taken out in a different name. I was able to contact the bank listed on the card and confirm I do not hold such a card. The bank then sent their routine, updated report to the credit agencies which was then reflected on my credit score. This might sound easy, but it often takes at least an hour or two to connect with the correct people on the phone.

When you’re unable to contact your bank, the more routine route is to contact the credit bureau.

Another alternative is that your credit report might indicate the address of the lender associated with the error. You can try to find a contact number for that address or begin the long and tedious process of mail correspondence.

If you end up sending mail correspondence, the smart move here is to scan all copies of correspondence and certify all mail, so as to ensure receipt on the other end.

Certified mail is just a fancy way of saying you can confirm the documents were sent and received.

Fifth, What Should I do if I Find an Error in my Favor, Such as Student Loan Debt that Goes Missing?

If you know you have a student loan outstanding, and have been making recurring payments, then you’ll want that to show on your credit report.

Even if you are delinquent on payments and assuming you have no recourse for loan forgiveness, then you will need to track down any missing loans that do not show up on a credit report.

When a loan is missing on your credit report, it typically is in transition. Loans are frequently bought and sold by different companies. This process of buying and selling can happen many times, especially when the loan is in default.

A credit report might accurately show the account has closed with your original lender, but inaccurately inform you the account is now being held by a different organization.

On the other hand, do not assume any debt coming up is going to accurately be your obligation to pay.

When my aunt passed away my mom received numerous calls from debt collectors telling my mom that she was legally obligated to pay off my aunt’s debt. This was untrue as my mom did not co-sign or even know of the existence of this debt. As an added measure, my mom checked her credit reports to confirm there was nothing listed on there that she didn’t already know.

Don’t take someone at their word, especially a debt collector over the phone. A quick google search will show the bottom feeding tactics, sometimes illegal, that many of these collection agencies employ.

Check your report to confirm the account exists. If it was closed down, then follow up with that agency to see where it was sold to. The paper trail can be a headache, but it will be worth spending the time now, before you do receive that call down the road informing you of late payments, fees, etc.


Given credit scores can be so impactful in our lives, determining if we land a job or our dream house, I felt it was appropriate to write a longer post.

I was especially inspired to write this post after having been able to boost my own credit score by 77 points. It felt good to have my record reflect me, and not anyone else.

I hope you get some insights and inspiration to check your own score soon and make sure everything is in order. Chances are pretty high you’ll find some type of mistake, so it’ll be better to clear it up now rather than find out about it after you’re rejected for a loan.

Have you had any horror stories with fraud or finding errors on your credit reports? Did you manage to get them resolved in a short period of time? Do you use the same or similar tools to keep track of your credit?


19 comments… add one
  • The Green Swan Jun 8, 2016, 6:36 am

    Wow, that is pretty remarkable that debt showed up on your report and thankfully you were able to get it corrected. I’ve never had a significant error like that before, that’s kind of scary though. Definitely goes to show the value in regularly checking your own credit report to ensure accuracy! Thanks for the very important primer on the topic.

    • [email protected] Jun 8, 2016, 6:46 am

      Have any of you froze your credit? We did that as well. Not sure it is worth it – but we decided to give it a try.

      • Distilled Dollar Jun 8, 2016, 7:02 am

        I have not. Do you mind sharing a bit more about your experience? What motivated you to do it and would you do it again?

        • [email protected] Jun 8, 2016, 7:12 am

          I guess I listened to Clark Howard say it a few too many times and we decided that we’d give it a try! I have had my credit card “compromised” a few times and it was a huge hassle to change auto pay items to a new card. The freeze was easy for me to do – took about 15 minutes for all 3 bureaus. Took my husband longer because one bureau showed an account set up already (that he forgot he had done years earlier) – so that was a good “double check”. Our biggest issue is the “unfreeze” when we apply for travel credit cards – but we don’t plan on doing that regularly now that we have our miles/rewards balances pretty high. The unfreeze costs a few dollars but is a fast process too! One other comment – we both used a 0 percent balance transfer offer on a credit card and moved a home equity loan to that. It definitely dropped our scores because our utilization number was so high. But it took us from 4% to 0 so that was great! Just something to consider (we knew that would happen though).

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 8, 2016, 6:55 am

      Between that credit card showing up and the foreign spa charges in Estonia, it has not been a great 12 months for me! Haha, but luckily I keep on top of this stuff. I can only imagine some people don’t and would have funded some fraudster’s Baltic vacation. That’s a scary thought.

  • [email protected] Jun 8, 2016, 6:44 am

    Such a thorough review Matt! Your credit can affect purchasing a “dream home” which is really important – but we use credit information to determine who we will rent to as well. It is likely not their dream home, but having a home is important too – and poor credit will affect who will rent to you. 77 points could make a big difference to some landlords! Your score affects things like your insurance rates too! We tried using Mint but a number of our accounts would not “sync”, I will have to check on that again. I know others use Personal Capital, so I am going to give that a look too. And I am glad Credit Karma sends out those reminder updates!

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 8, 2016, 6:58 am

      Thanks Vicki! This post might have taken me more time than any other since I kept adding to it and refining it, so your comment is much appreciated!

      I had the same issue with Mint when I first set it up. I found that sometimes it, A) corrected itself within a month or, B) needed a quick phone call to customer service.

  • Apathy Ends Jun 8, 2016, 6:52 am

    I review our reports every 1-2 months just to make sure everything is in order.

    Credit utilization can swing your score drastically, even though we pay our card off every month, if our balance is high when they check our score has dropped 20 points

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 8, 2016, 7:00 am

      Same goes here. I’ve seen 4 of those 6 credit factors get, “worse,” while my credit utilization improved, and the end result was my score going up by a few points.

  • Jon Jun 8, 2016, 7:44 am

    Nice coverage of the topic! One of the big benefits of cleaning up your credit report is that a higher credit score will let you get a lower interest rate on your mortgage once you have enough saved up to take the plunge into home ownership. We recently re-financed our primary residence and with a credit score of 780+, were able to get the best interest rate available at 2 and 7/8 percent. That’s a huge savings over our prior rate of 3 and 7/8 percent.

    A little due diligence goes a long way – good job improving your score by so much!

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 8, 2016, 12:25 pm

      Yep, a little due diligence can help increase your score & prevent you from paying for someone else’s vacation, as it was in my situation!

      Congrats on locking in a 1% reduction on your mortgage. Any idea what the total savings will look like over the life of the loan?

      • Jon Jun 8, 2016, 1:07 pm

        I did a back of the envelope calfculation and the savings are about $18,000 in interest over the 15 year period. Closing costs were about $3,000. So, net pre-tax savings are about $15,000. I’m planning a more detailed write up for my blog in a month or so!

        • Distilled Dollar Jun 9, 2016, 6:26 am

          Nice! That’s an incredible amount of savings. Looking forward to seeing the post!

  • Brad Moore Jun 8, 2016, 2:43 pm

    I saw a story, on John Oliver’s Sunday Night HBO Show, of how Credit Card & all other Debtor Companies will just as easily sell their debts (my debt) to Bill Collection Agencies for pennies on the dollar. What happens to that item on you Credit Report when it has been relieved from the original Creditor? — Also – Oliver formed his own, ‘Collection Company’ – purchased over 15 million dollars of ‘Over-due Medical Bills’ from TX Medical Institutions – for 5-6 thousand dollars, & then wrote each debtor and forgave their debt!!! Pretty Cool!?!!

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 9, 2016, 6:31 am

      Haha, that is crazy! From an accounting & financial perspective, the debtor companies will want to optimize cash flows and turn an illiquid, possibly toxic asset into something useful for the business. That explains why they’ll sell bad debt at such a steep discount.

      As for your question, the credit report might accurately show us the account closing and the initial interpretation might be to think we no longer owe the debt. But, if it is still within statute, and barring no bankruptcy situations (or loan forgiveness), then in all likelihood the debt is exchanging hands and the new organization has not reported anything yet. It might take some time to be notified of the new debt collection agency.

      If you find yourself in this situation, then you can call the original lender to see where they sold their loan. If it didn’t change hands many times, then you’ll find quickly who you owe.

  • Mr. PIE Jun 9, 2016, 10:58 am

    This is an extremely helpful post and one I need to bookmark and read again. I did not realize the big bureaus had to provide a yearly report. And free of charge makes it sweeter.

    • Distilled Dollar Jun 12, 2016, 8:18 am

      Yep! They are required by law but they don’t need to advertise it. I think that’s why some people still end up paying money to see their credit reports.

  • Mike Jun 14, 2016, 3:56 pm

    a lot of good info here…i have been tracking my credit report and score diligently the past 10 years… i wish i started sooner because my score would have been better when i was in my late 20’s…

Leave a Comment

View the Best Finance Blogs