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Credit errors take personal effort to repair

Mike Ferrara wants to buy a house in a few months and is worried that mistakes on his credit report will keep him from obtaining the loan he will need.

Mike Ferrara wants to buy a house in a few months and is worried that mistakes on his credit report will keep him from obtaining the loan he will need.

His concern is legitimate. You'd think with a credit score of 650, he'd be fine. But not now. With banks less able to lend money than they were before the housing crash, mortgage loans are tougher to get unless people have credit scores in the mid-700s or higher on a 300-850 scale.

So Ferrara, who lives in Harwood Heights, Ill., is right to want to erase mistakes from his credit reports -- the records three credit bureaus assemble to show lenders a person's history of paying bills. If Ferrara can get the credit bureaus to fix even one or two errors in his credit history, it could make the difference between receiving the loan he wants or not.

But Ferrara, like many consumers, knows nothing about the credit maze and doesn't want to bother figuring it out.

"Tell me who can do it for me, someone legitimate," he said in a telephone conversation last week. "I have seen mistakes in my credit report. But I don't have the time to work on it. I drive a truck at night and need to sleep during the day."

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"Sorry, Mike," I had to tell him. "If you try to turn this over to someone, you might not end up sleeping easily."

Unfortunately, there are some slimy characters out there -- firms that run ads making it sound like they can make your credit messes vanish in a snap. If you have high bills and are trying to work on them, too often they collect a few hundred dollars from you and still leave you with your problems. Sometimes they make your credit score worse.

The Consumer Federation of America found in a 2003 study that many credit counseling firms charge excessive fees, promise quick fixes that are deceptive and provide improper advice. They put clients on payment plans they can't afford, and sometimes collect money from clients without paying their bills. The result for the client: a worse credit history and score.

Begin by ordering a free credit report from each credit bureau through AnnualCreditReport.com. Don't respond to the ads you have seen for other sites that promise "free credit reports." Only AnnualCreditReport.com was set up under government rules to provide completely free reports.

You will need to look for mistakes in three credit reports; one from each credit bureau: Equifax, (800) 685-1111; TransUnion, (800) 916-8800; and Experian, (888) 397-3742. One bureau might be correct, while another might have errors. All three matter.

Sometimes people find their report reflects accounts held by someone with a similar name. Other times, people find unpaid bills they didn't know were delinquent. Medical bills can show up in reports while people are still seeking payments from insurance companies.

You won't see a credit score on the credit reports. But the credit score reflects the payment history you see in your credit reports, so cleaning up errors should improve your score. You can buy yourcredit scores at MyFICO.com.

GAIL MARKSJARVIS is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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