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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.
Dear To Her Credit,
In the process of getting our credit reports for a mortgage loan, four negative items appeared on the reports. We applied through three lenders to get the best rate, and found that these four items alternately appeared on my credit report or my husband’s. They date back to 2005 and 2006 (long before we met), and neither of us have any recollection of what these items are for.
These items showed up recently: When we pulled our credit in the past year or two, we didn’t see them. We would have thought they’d have been there at some point in the past five to six years.
What is best method of handling something like this? — Jessica
Mystery debts can pop up on a person’s credit history anytime and cause all kinds of trouble. Although most negative items are reported closer to the date of a missed payment, creditors can report negative items anytime within the time period — generally seven years — that the item is allowed to stay on your report.
Chances are these negative marks are from one of three things:
- Identity theft. This would be my first concern when something showed up on my credit history that I was not aware of. Someone could be taking out credit in my name without my knowledge. ID theft is the top reason why mystery debts should always be resolved as soon as you find out about them.
- Long-forgotten debt. It’s easy to forget a debt, especially when the name on the debt may not be the company name you thought you were dealing with. It’s interesting, though, that apparently this company has made no effort in recent years to collect from you. Unless you are very hard to find, that doesn’t quite add up.
- Clerical error. Creditors report millions of items about people who owe money to them. If they make mistakes a small percentage of the time, that’s enough to cause headaches for a lot of people. Errors on credit reports are very common, and I’d be willing to bet that’s the culprit in your case.
Your negative items are especially baffling because they managed to get on both of your credit histories at a time when you were not together. That’s not impossible, however, because the two of you were together when the report was sent to the credit bureau. It wouldn’t take many slippery fingers on the keyboard for this debt to land on both of your reports. It only reinforces my suspicions that the whole thing is a mistake.
Just because these negative marks are probably wrong doesn’t mean you can ignore them — especially when you’re trying to buy a house. It can take time to straighten out errors like this, and in the meantime you could lose the deal you wanted or end up paying a higher interest rate on your mortgage.
It’s important you dispute these items as quickly as possible. Contact the credit bureaus in writing and tell them what information you believe is inaccurate. You should also contact the creditors in writing and tell them you dispute the items.
Once you have these marks off your report, your real estate broker may recommend you get a rapid rescoring to get your credit report updated within just a few days. Rapid rescoring is not free, but it may be worth it if it rescues your mortgage so you can get into your new home as planned. Your broker can set up rapid rescoring for you.
One thing you should not do is pay old debts that you don’t think are yours. First, it’s not right. Second, you need your money for buying your home and getting settled in it, and to keep an emergency fund in place at all times. And third, paying even a small amount on a debt can restart the statute of limitations on the debt and make it appear you agreed you owe the amount.
Good luck on buying your new home, and take care of your credit!
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