If you entered the travel hacking game through the big credit card affiliate bloggers, you probably know that folks who rely on credit card signup bonuses to build their points balances closely monitor and protect their credit reports, sometimes going to outlandish lengths like paying off credit card balances before their statements close, hoping that low reported balances will make them ever more creditworthy, eligible for more exclusive cards and higher credit limits.
Since I earn the overwhelming majority of my miles and points through manufactured spend, I find these antics to be mostly amusing (and mostly harmless). Indeed, since I aggressively take advantage of offers like the Chase Slate introductory $0 balance transfer fee and 0% APR on balance transfers, my credit utilization rate is often at or above 90% on one or more of my open credit cards.
That doesn’t mean I don’t really screw up sometimes: I recently discovered Barclaycard doesn’t allow you to make same-day payments after 8 pm Eastern time, which left me paying my balance off a day “late,” with Barclay’s cheerfully chalking a late payment up on my credit report.
However, I recently found a much more serious derogatory remark on one of my credit reports, which I decided to dispute.
Reminder: which credit cards monitor which credit reports?
There are three major credit bureaux, and each calculates a separate FICO score based solely on the information reported to that bureau. While a number of banks and credit cards now offer free access to your FICO score, each typically partners with only a single bureau. That means to get free access to all your FICO scores, you need to know which credit cards track which bureaux:
Experian: Chase Slate (FICO)
TransUnion: Chase Slate (VantageScore), American Express (VantageScore), Discover (FICO), Bank of America (FICO), Barclaycard (FICO)
Equifax: Citi (FICO)
As a victim of the Chinese cyberattack on the Office of Management and Budget, I also have free access to MyIDCare, which monitors all three credit bureaux and alerts me to any changes on my reports (and a bunch of sillier stuff like when sex offenders move into my neighborhood).
The credit union, the negative balance, and the charge-off
Back in November or December of 2018, I started getting automated calls from a credit union I had experimented with for a manufactured spend liquidation strategy, telling me my account had a negative balance and asking that I call back immediately.
When I did, the young man on the other end told me a complicated story about my account being mistakenly credited multiple times for the same transaction, all the way back in the summer of 2018. Since I had withdrawn the money already, when the credit union discovered the “error” and debited my account, it created a negative balance they were now trying to collect.
This all seemed quite plausible. The only problem was, the young man was unwilling to provide any documentation of this curious series of events. The amount of money involved wasn’t enormous, but I have a general principle to not give people money unless they can have some sort of evidence that they’re actually owed it, the subject of a delightful book about the financial crisis by the journalist David Dayen, “Chain of Title.”
Disputing Experian derogatory remarks is fast and easy
That brings me to this February, when MyIDCare reported that a new derogatory remark had appeared on my Experian credit report: the credit union had charged off my negative balance. Interestingly, so far the charge-off has been reported only to Experian, and my other scores haven’t been affected (keep in mind they were nothing special to begin with).
Since the credit union had never been able to provide any documentation, I decided this would be an interesting opportunity to learn how to dispute credit information. And it turned out to be a breeze!
A simple Google search took me to Experian’s main dispute page. At this point, you have the option of creating a “free” account or a “limited” account. This is a little bit confusing because neither account costs any money. The difference is the “free” account is used to upsell you additional Experian services, while a “limited” account is used only to dispute items on your Experian record. I created a limited account.
This took me directly to the Experian Online Dispute Center, and my new charge-off was sitting right at the top of the page. After selecting it, I was given five dispute options:
"Payment never late”
“Not mine or No knowledge of account”
“Account paid in full”
I thought “Unauthorized charges” most closely resembled my complaint (since I’d never authorized the debit), so I selected that. On the next page, a comment box let me explain what happened in a few words, and then I submitted the dispute. The whole process took perhaps 10 minutes.
I’ve heard horror stories about how difficult it is to remove false information from a credit report, and indeed I’m not particularly optimistic that I’ll succeed in having the charge-off removed. On the other hand, I’m fairly impressed with how streamlined Experian’s dispute process is, so if you’ve been dreading figuring out how to dispute derogatory or incorrect information on your credit report, take heed: it’s easier than you think.
Experian estimated the dispute would take about a month to resolve, and I’ll keep readers updated as the situation develops.