Can You Quickly Repair or Rebuild Your Credit?
For thousands of Americans looking for help repairing their credit scores, companies like Consumer Protection Resources and the American Consumer Rights Organization seemed like a safe bet. But according to a complaint issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), these companies weren’t helping Americans — they were scamming them [*].
Over the span of three years, these fake credit repair companies bilked Americans out of millions. Even worse, they left their victims with more debt and lower credit scores than when they started.
Household debt in America reached an astonishing $16.9 trillion in late 2022, leaving millions of people looking for a way to repair their credit [*].
Whether you’re looking to repair your credit due to fraud, late or missed payments, or any other reason, it pays to be cautious.
In this guide, we’ll cover the most important steps towards rebuilding your credit, and provide tips to protect yourself from credit repair scams.
How Credit Scores Work (and How To Fix Yours)
A credit score is a calculation that estimates a person’s creditworthiness. These measurements help lending institutions decide if they’re willing to take on the risk of extending credit to you — for example, if you want to buy a house with a mortgage, take out an auto loan, or even rent an apartment.
The two main credit calculation metrics are VantageScore and the FICO Score. These calculations include a combination of factors like payment history, amount owed, length of credit history, credit utilization, credit mix (i.e., how many different kinds of loans you have), balances, and new credit.
However, it’s important to note that these components are weighted differently according to the lender’s discretion.
Even the three main credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) don’t calculate your credit score the same way. One agency might include information that another doesn’t. This is partly because credit reporting agencies don’t share information with one another.
Yet despite the individual differences between the bureaus, there are a few “indisputable truths” when it comes to repairing your credit score:
- Your payment history is the most important factor in determining your creditworthiness. In particular, negative information (such as missed or late payments, bankruptcies, or debts sent to collections) has the most impact.
- Your credit utilization rate is the second most important factor. This metric is usually shown as a percentage. It measures the amount that you currently owe divided by your credit limit.
- You can only dispute incorrect or fraudulent information on your credit score. The rest is left to the credit bureau’s discretion.
The bottom line: If you’re a victim of identity theft, fraud, or incorrect billing practices, you can repair the damage done to your credit score in as little as a few weeks. However, if your credit score was damaged due to missed payments or excessive debt, it can take several months — or even years — to repair a bad credit score.
How Long Does Negative Information Stay on Your Credit Report?
If you have legitimate negative items on your credit report, it can take years for them to expire. The amount of time may vary depending on the current state of your credit score.
Here’s a quick breakdown detailing how long you can expect various derogatory marks to remain on your credit report:
Removing negative information can quickly change your score — but only if you’re able to legitimately dispute it.
How To Quickly and Safely Rebuild Your Credit
- Secure your identity and credit report
- Check your credit reports for mistakes, errors, and fraud
- Dispute false information or fraudulent charges
- Remove hard inquiries from your credit report
- Create a budget and catch up on overdue bills
- Lower your credit utilization ratio
- Don’t close your old accounts
- Use a secured credit card or credit-builder loan
- Actively monitor your credit
- Report rent, utility, and phone service payments
If you’ve accumulated bad credit history, the following credit-building steps offer some effective ways to get back on track.
1. Secure your identity and credit report
If fraudulent accounts or charges appear on your credit report, it’s a sign that your identity is at risk. You should immediately report any incorrect information. Otherwise, criminals will continue to damage your credit by committing fraud with your financial information.
How to secure your identity and credit report:
- Place a credit freeze with all three credit bureaus. A credit freeze immediately blocks anyone from accessing your credit file and taking out loans or opening accounts in your name. A freeze is quick and free to set up. To initiate a credit freeze, contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) and make the request.
- Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). An official FTC report is required when disputing fraudulent accounts and charges. You can file a report online at IdentityTheft.gov.
- Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Services like Aura track all of your most sensitive personal and financial information, protect your devices and data from hackers, and cover you with up to $1 million in insurance for eligible losses due to identity theft.
2. Check your credit reports for mistakes, errors, and fraud
Removing mistakes, errors, and fraud from your credit reports is one of the fastest and most effective ways to repair your credit score. Every American is entitled to a free weekly credit report from each of the three credit bureaus until the end of 2023 at AnnualCreditReport.com.
How to check your free credit report for mistakes, errors, and fraud:
- Look for errors in your personal information. Check for wrong addresses, a misspelled name, or different date of birth. These errors could be due to identity theft or legitimate mistakes that caused accounts that aren’t yours to be attributed to your file.
- Check your balance information. If the bureaus don’t get the most up-to-date information about your balances and payments, they may incorrectly lower your credit score or give you negative marks.
- Review every account and its status. Look for incorrect or missing payments as well as account ownership and status information (i.e., if an account is open or closed). Closed accounts shouldn’t be listed on your credit report.
3. Dispute false information or fraudulent charges
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) allows consumers to dispute information on their credit files. This process involves writing a detailed credit dispute letter to one or all of the three major credit bureaus.
How to dispute false information or fraudulent charges:
- Use this free credit dispute letter template. You’ll need to provide documentation that shows fraudulent activity or inaccurate information. For example, if your identity was stolen, you’ll need to include your official identity theft report from the FTC.
- Explain your case in detail. Include dates and account numbers, and describe the inaccuracies as clearly as possible. It may be a good idea to share a redacted copy of your credit report highlighting the issues.
- Contact the credit bureaus and your financial institution. To dispute a credit card charge, call your card issuer. It’s best to file disputes about your credit score via certified mail.
4. Remove hard inquiries from your credit report
Hard inquiries occur when a lender requests a review of your credit file as a result of a loan application or a new credit card application. This action is noted on your credit report and takes two years to disappear.
Hard inquiries can only be legitimately disputed if they’re the result of fraudulent activity.
How to remove hard inquiries:
- Contact the creditor that requested the hard inquiry. Provide the date of the hard pull along with supporting documentation surrounding the fraud incident. Request that the creditor remove the inquiry.
- If you can’t resolve the matter with the creditor, submit an official dispute to the credit reporting agencies. Keep a copy of all the documents that you include, such as the letter itself and the tracking number of the package (if it’s sent by mail).
💡 Related: How To Remove Hard Inquiries From Your Credit Report →
5. Create a budget and catch up on overdue bills
While fraudulent activity on your credit report can be cleared up relatively quickly, legitimate negative marks take time to repair. A fresh approach to your personal finances is an essential part of credit repair because it helps build healthy financial habits that will protect you (and your credit) in the long run.
How to start budgeting and keeping up with bills:
- Review your finances and pay any outstanding bills. Start with a clean slate by paying all outstanding bills, if you’re able to do so.
- Set up automatic payments whenever possible to avoid credit card debt. On-time payments are key to building a good credit score.
- Invest in a budgeting app or service. Providers like You Need A Budget offer a user-friendly solution to personal budgeting by helping you visualize your income and expenses, keep track of monthly payments, and categorize monthly spending limits.
💡 Related: How To Read Your Credit Reports (and Dispute Errors) →
6. Lower your credit utilization ratio
Your credit utilization rate reflects how much revolving credit you use. For example, if you have a credit limit of $10,000 but only owe $2,000, your credit utilization rate would be 20%. Unlike some negative items, improving your credit utilization rate takes effect very quickly.
A rate of 30% or less is ideal — but if you consistently use multiple credit cards, your ratio might be higher.
How to lower your credit utilization rate:
- Pay your credit card balance early. This ensures that your monthly balance is at least partially paid off before your credit account issuer reports it to credit bureaus.
- Decrease your credit card spending. If you’re struggling to make on-time payments, use debit cards and cash more often. This helps your utilization rate drop as you pay down credit card debt.
- Consider taking out a personal loan. This can boost your credit by shifting debt to an installment loan [*]. However, if you already have bad credit, the interest rate you’re offered might not be worth it.
💡 Related: How To Prove a Debt Isn't Yours (and Dispute It) →
7. Don’t close your old accounts
Establishing credit history is crucial to building good credit because it shows lenders how experienced you are at making timely payments.
Not only does account age alone make up 15% of your FICO score [*], closing unused $0 balance credit accounts can increase your credit utilization rate (which damages your credit score).
Since credit utilization rate measures total amount of used credit against total amount of available credit, closing an old account eliminates a source of available credit that you’re not using. As a result, your credit utilization ratio will rise.
If you think you can remain disciplined enough to avoid using old accounts in a pinch, keeping them open is probably in your best interest.
8. Use a secured credit card or credit-builder loan
Secured credit cards are the best credit cards for rebuilding credit. These accounts require an upfront cash payment equal to the borrower’s credit limit so that the lender can use it to cover late or missed payments.
Using a secured credit card is similar to using a debit card, but the advantage is that your activity is tracked and reported to credit bureaus (which affects your credit score).
Another option is to go with a credit-builder loan. These loans are designed for people with low or no credit scores. Instead of receiving the loan amount upfront, the money is deposited into a secured account toward which you pay installments. You’ll either get access to the money in chunks (as you make payments) or once the full amount is paid for.
How to use a secured credit card or credit-builder loan:
- See if your bank offers a secured credit card or credit-builder loan. Several major banks offer secured credit cards, including Bank of America, Citibank, and CapitalOne. Credit-builder loans are typically offered by smaller institutions, such as credit unions, online lenders, or community banks.
- Make sure you have the cash on hand for the security deposit. In general, using a secured credit card means you’ll have a low credit limit. This means you should prepare to rely on payment methods other than your credit card.
💡 Related: Citibank Customer? Watch Out For These 8 Scams →
9. Actively monitor your credit with credit monitoring services
Credit monitoring services are among today’s most important financial security tools. They protect your credit score and financial accounts from identity thieves and fraudsters by automatically alerting you to suspicious activity and account changes.
The sooner you know about fraudulent activity, the faster you can report and remove negative items from your credit score. And the more protected your information and assets are, the safer you’ll be.
- Sign up for reliable credit monitoring and financial fraud protection services. Look for a provider that guarantees near real-time security alerts and covers adjacent aspects of personal security, such as digital safety and identity theft protection.
- Practice personal habits that shield your information from hackers, scammers, and thieves. Learn safety strategies that make your personal and financial information a less likely target, whether it be online, over the phone, or in person.
10. Report rent, utility, and phone service payments
If you make regular payments towards services, some credit bureaus will accept those as signs of your creditworthiness. For example, Experian offers a free credit repair service called Experian Boost that allows users to report certain recurring payments, including phone, utility, and rental bills — and even some subscription services like Netflix and Hulu.
This service provides an opportunity to start building positive payment history wherever possible, via a trusted and secure provider.
Other providers offer somewhat inexpensive ways to report bills for credit building, but Experian Boost is unique because it’s free and directly provided by a major credit bureau.
Are Credit Repair Companies Legitimate? Should You Use One?
Credit building is an important long-term goal. Whether you’re recovering from fraud or working your way towards paying down debt, be cautious about companies that claim they can repair your credit quickly and easily.
Some providers charge fees for solutions that you can achieve on your own (such as requests to remove incorrect information from your credit file). Others are actually scammers that advertise debt counseling and promise to “fix” your credit — but instead, they use shady practices or oversell their “services” to take advantage of you.
Here are the most common warning signs of a credit repair or debt counseling scam:
- A required up-front fee. The Credit Repair Organizations Act stipulates that credit repair companies or subscription services may not legally request payment before they’ve delivered the promised results.
- You’re instructed not to contact the credit reporting agencies yourself. This is a red flag — you always have the right to contact your credit reporting agency for any reason, and honest providers have no reason to discourage you from doing so.
- The provider guarantees a higher credit score. Promises like this aren’t realistic. Instead, they indicate that a scammer is trying to take advantage of people who are in desperate situations.
- They suggest a strategy called “piggybacking.” Known as “for-profit piggybacking,” this involves a company adding you as an authorized user to a stranger’s credit card (and charging a fee) so that their payment history will appear on your credit score. It’s a risky practice for many reasons, and it leaves you vulnerable to identity theft.
- You’re asked to use false information on application forms. Any instruction to misrepresent information is a sign that the provider is untrustworthy. Sometimes, scammers offer what’s known as a CPN number as an alternative to using your Social Security number (SSN) on official reports — but this practice is illegal and deceptive.
- You’re not informed of your rights or given a detailed contract. Legitimate credit repair companies should offer a written contract detailing the parameters of the services you’re paying for, including the option to cancel the contract for free within three business days of signing it.
The Bottom Line: Protect Your Credit
Your credit score is one of your most valuable assets. It enables you to finance a home or a car, take out student loans for career-building and education, and much more. But even an excellent credit score can be destroyed in days by missed payments or the effects of a malicious scam attack.
Protecting your credit and your information is a matter of long-term personal safety. This is why Aura combines three-bureau credit monitoring and rapid security alerts with a host of other powerful digital safety features — including award-winning identity theft protection services, internet and device security tools, parental controls, 24/7 fraud resolution assistance, and up to $1 million in identity fraud insurance.