6-year-old mystery debt suddenly appears on credit report? Erase it!

Since creditor can't supply an account number, wiping it out should be easy

Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno
Barry Paperno is a freelance writer and credit scoring expert with decades of consumer credit industry experience, serving as consumer affairs manager for FICO (formerly Fair Isaac Corp.) and consumer operations manager for Experian. He writes "Speaking of Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about credit scoring and rebuilding credit, for CreditCards.com. His writings about credit scoring have appeared in The Huffington Post, MSN Money, CBS Money Watch and other consumer finance websites.

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Dear Speaking of Credit,
I always pay my bills on time. I was surprised to see a derogatory item on my credit report. I disputed it and called the collection agency. It seems it is a Comcast bill even though I never, ever subscribed to any Comcast service. Collection agency cannot pull the report, and Comcast doesn't have an account number for me. I filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau against Comcast and SW credit systems. What am I supposed to do? The bill dates from April 2008 and I haven't heard of it until two days ago, and I never subscribed to anything Comcast whatsoever.

How can I clear my credit report? Does it affect me much after six years now? I left Boston six years ago and it is now that I discover this bill! I always paid my 11 credit cards on time, and in 2010 I even got bigger credit lines. Will the statute of limitation in Massachusetts, which is six years, expire and kill the problem? Your advice ... PLEAAASE. -- Sam from Boston


Dear Sam from Boston,
Sad to say, yours is an all-too-common occurrence, as the process by which a creditor can add erroneous information to your credit report is much simpler and easier (for them) to do than the process of cleaning up errors that you're now burdened with.

I'm going to suggest a plan of attack toward getting the collection removed on this mystery debt, explain how the statute of limitations affects your situation and provide some perspective as to how this collection may be impacting your credit scores.

First, when you say you disputed this collection, I hope you mean you initiated an investigation with one or more of the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs -- also known as credit bureaus) reporting it. These agencies are Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

Disputing with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as you've done, is also a worthwhile step toward resolution, as many people have had positive results from doing so. However, the CFPB itself also suggests first filing a dispute with the CRA and the company that is the source of the information, and then -- only if you're not satisfied with the results -- submitting a dispute to the bureau.

The dispute process I'm suggesting consists of the following steps:

  1. Obtain your credit report directly from the three national credit bureaus by going to the single site set up to access all three: annualcreditreport.com. The reports are free if you haven't obtained one in the past year.
  2. For any credit reports showing the collection, follow the instructions that accompany the report for starting an investigation with the CRA, which can be done online or by certified mail, return receipt requested.
  3. Provide copies of your CRA dispute and any supporting documentation via certified mail, return receipt requested, directly to the collection agency and the original creditor.
  4. Upon receiving your dispute, the CRA will contact the collection agency to either confirm that the collection belongs to you or, if not, remove it within 30 days.
  5. You'll receive notification of the investigation's outcome from the CRA within about 45 days.

Hopefully, the issue will be resolved through this established dispute process. If not, the next step would be to contact the original creditor (Comcast) again, this time insisting on speaking to a manager or going as high up the ladder as you can, requesting that since they don't show an account for you, they instruct the collection agency to remove the debt from your credit bureau reports and not contact you again. If the investigation of one CRA declares the notation as inaccurate, it is required to notify the other two big credit bureaus so that a correction can be made.

While being outside the six-year statute of limitations prevents the collection agency from suing you for the debt, it doesn't prohibit all unpleasantries.

The statute won't prevent:

  • The collection agency from contacting you for payment.
  • The CRAs from continuing to report it for the full 7.5 years from the date the debt first became late.
  • The collection item from being included in your credit scores.

On the subject of your credit scores, the chances are good that the collection may not be appearing on all three of your credit reports or impacting your credit scores at each of the CRAs, since all collection agencies don't necessarily report to all three.

Also helping you is that the derogatory item lacks "recency" -- a credit scoring term that just means how recent your debt is. The more recent a collections item is, the worse off you are, since the most important factor when credit scores evaluate collections and other negative items is how recent it is. You don't have much recency: The debt is more than 6 years old, so it's having only minimal negative impact on your score. If you're unable to get it removed soon, it will automatically come off your credit reports in another year or so.

I hope this helps, and that you're able to get rid of that collection!

See related: How to fix surprise credit report errors, FICO's five factors: The components of a credit score

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Updated: 01-23-2018