Consumers have complained for years that fixing errors on their credit reports was a bureaucratic nightmare. Now, the three major credit reporting companies will make it easier to correct mistakes.
Equifax Inc., Experian Information Solutions Inc. and TransUnion, which together produce credit reports on about 200 million Americans, said they would overhaul their procedures for resolving disputes about unpaid bills.
The changes, announced Monday by New York officials, include the firms' agreement to wait six months before listing medical expenses as delinquent to allow more time for insurance companies to process claims.
The overhaul is designed to address widespread criticism about the inaccuracy of credit reports, which increasingly determine whether Americans can get a mortgage, buy a car or even land a job.
"Credit reports touch every part of our lives," said New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman. "The nation's largest reporting agencies have a responsibility to investigate and correct errors on consumers' credit reports."
Most changes will be implemented nationwide in the coming months, and some will roll out over a 39-month period. The agreement settles an investigation that Schneiderman's office started three years ago.
A Federal Trade Commission study two years ago found that about 26% of consumers had at least one "potentially material error" on one of their credit reports.
Not all the mistakes were enough to cause changes in credit scores, which could lead to higher rates for mortgages or other financial products. But about 2.2% of the reports studied had such mistakes.
Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, said the changes that the credit reporting companies agreed to make "should benefit consumers enormously."
"This agreement addresses some of the most egregious problems in credit reporting that consumer advocates have complained about for many years," she said.
Schneiderman praised the companies for working with his office to improve their operations.
"To their credit, unlike some industries, they decided the right way to do this was to come up with some reforms," he said.
The new policies "will enhance our ability to offer accurate reports and make the process of dealing with credit information easier and more transparent for consumers," said Stuart Pratt, president of the Consumer Data Industry Assn., a trade group that includes the three large credit-reporting firms.
Soon after Schneiderman's office began investigating the three large credit reporting companies in 2012, it found that "their system for resolving complaints was fundamentally flawed," the attorney general said.
"The burden has been entirely on the consumer to work their way through a very challenging system … and a system that relies way too much on the people who generated the bad data in the first place just confirming their bad data is good," he said.
If a consumer disputed a late payment or unpaid bill on a credit report, the companies contacted the creditor and took its word on the dispute, Schneiderman said.
"If the lender replied, 'No, the consumer is wrong, they were late on the mortgage payment,' that was the end of the investigation," he said. "That is a rubber-stamp approach that will no longer take place."
Under the agreement, the credit reporting companies will have to use employees trained to review complaints about errors on credit reports. If a bank or other creditor disputes a mistake, the credit-reporting companies must assign an employee to look into the matter.
The settlement also addresses another major problem: the often lengthy process of getting medical bills paid by insurance companies.
About 52% of all debt listed on credit reports is for medical expenses, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said last year. And that debt often is listed because of delays or disputes in getting insurance claims paid.
The credit reporting companies agreed to wait 180 days before listing medical bills as unpaid to allow time for insurance payments to be made. Also, because insurance disputes can last longer, the firms agreed to remove medical debt from a credit report when it is paid by the insurer instead of leaving it on the report for seven years as they do for other delinquencies.
The settlement also tries to make it easier to check a credit report.
By law, consumers are entitled to receive one free report each year from each of the three major credit reporting firms through http://www.annualcreditreport.com. But many people pay for the reports or subscribe to a credit-monitoring service to get one.
The companies agreed to put a link to the free credit report site prominently on their homepages. And if an error on a report is disputed and changed, consumers will be able to confirm that the error was corrected by receiving a second free report without waiting until the next year, New York officials said.
The changes come after revisions last summer in the nation's dominant credit-scoring system, which uses the credit reporting data to calculate scores used by lenders to determine who gets a loan.
Fair Isaac Corp., which provides FICO scores, said it would reduce the negative effect of overdue medical bills and remove penalties to consumers who pay off debts assigned to collection agencies.