How to remove old debt from credit reports

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear Sally,
Hello! I am 39 and am just now pulling my credit history, trying to figure out how an old credit card and an auto loan can still be affecting my credit. I was 18 when I got the credit card and loan, and I was 23 the last I heard from either of them. Now out of the blue I get a letter from a collector saying they’re going to keep it on my credit history. At this rate, I can't make any progress rebuilding my credit. Please help! – Kelly


Dear Kelly,
You’re absolutely right! A debt from 21 years ago should not be on your credit report. I’ll bet the collector is trying to scare you and is lying about the debts being on your credit report. Collectors have been known to say all kinds of things, hoping you don’t know better. Sometimes it works!

Go ahead and pull your reports from the three major credit bureaus, using See if the debts are indeed being included by the credit bureaus.

If not, reply in writing to the collector saying that any debt, if there is one, is beyond the state statute of limitations and is uncollectible. Don’t ignore the debt collector just because the debt is uncollectible. Always respond in writing, and keep a record of what you sent to whom and when.

If you do see the debts on your credit report, immediately write to one of the three major credit bureaus (it is required to notify the other two) and dispute the debts. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, debts should disappear from your credit report after seven years, with bankruptcies dropping off after 10 years. More precisely, debts in collection can no longer be reported to the credit bureaus seven years plus 180 days after day of first delinquency.

When you write the credit bureau, provide as much information as possible about why the old debts should not be on your credit report. Include the dates you got the card and loan, and the date it went delinquent. At this point, you probably don’t remember exact dates, but use the information from the credit report and do the best you can.

You may be tempted to go the easy route and use the online form on the credit bureau website, but the extra trouble of a “real” letter is probably worth it. Online forms are often read and responded to by computers, much like those online help chat bots – which may not give you the best results. Besides, it’s harder to prove you sent a complaint by an online form. I recommend writing a letter on paper and sending it by certified mail.

Many of us make financial mistakes when we are young, or struggled with “early 20s finances.” That was a long, long time ago, and it shouldn’t be haunting you now. You’re doing the right thing by checking your credit history and cleaning it up if necessary.

While you’re looking at your report, see if you have any other negative credit marks you can clear up, or other ways you can improve your credit. Some information may be easy to fix. If you have more recent overdue or unpaid debts, you can start strategically paying them off so your report starts showing “paid in full” on more accounts. Learn more about the five factors that go into a credit score, and work on them one by one. Once the ancient history is off your report, you can be motivated to make a real difference with your credit, and to improve your financial life at the same time.

See related: How long negative information can stay on your credit report, 10 surefire steps to get errors off credit reports

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Updated: 01-21-2018