Add this to the financial fallout from the pandemic: More consumers are complaining about errors on their credit reports, and many are frustrated when trying to fix the mistakes, according to federal complaint data.
In 2020, consumers filed more than 280,000 complaints about credit reporting issues — more than half of all complaints received last year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said Syed Ejaz, a policy analyst for Consumer Reports.
The number of credit-reporting complaints more than doubled from 2019, according to the agency's online complaint database.
"They certainly have ballooned over the past year," Ejaz said.
Credit-report errors have long been a problem for consumers. Accuracy matters because your credit report help determine whether you can qualify for loans and credit cards and what interest rate you will pay.
Common mistakes include loans that have been repaid but appear as unpaid; debts incorrectly reported as being in collection; incorrect personal information and addresses; and "mixed" files, in which information from a different person appears in your credit report.
But mistakes are an even bigger worry during the pandemic, when many families are struggling and may not have time to negotiate corrections, said Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.
Some of the mistakes are pandemic-related. The federal government's relief program allowed a pause in the repayment of certain loans — including federally backed mortgages and federal student loans. Borrowers' credit reports are supposed to show the loans as current. That has not always worked as planned, according to complaints filed with the consumer bureau.
Typically, credit bureaus must respond to complaints within 30 to 45 days, but early in the pandemic the government gave them more flexibility on that deadline. "Disputes have not been responded to or have taken an excessive amount of time," Wu said.
A credit report is a summary of your debts and payment history, as reported by lenders to three big credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The bureaus apply a formula — created by another company, typically FICO or VantageScore — to boil down the information to a three-digit credit score. A score of 700 or above is generally considered good.
Lenders use the score as a snapshot of whether you are likely to repay a loan. Scores may also be checked when you apply for a job or an apartment lease. The higher the score the better. Paying bills on time and keeping credit card balances low help boost scores.
Because of the complexity of the credit reporting system, consumers may feel stymied when they find an error and try to fix it.
Student loan servicers have said borrowers are sometimes confused about whether they are eligible for federal payment relief offered during the pandemic. Some borrowers may have missed payments before protections like pausing payments kicked in, and had their scores drop as a result; others may have private student loans, which are ineligible for the help.
Credit scores are typically updated automatically as soon as the credit report is updated, said Francis Creighton, president and chief executive of the Consumer Data Industry Association, which represents credit bureaus and other data companies. How quickly a report is updated depends on how often a lender reports information to the credit bureau.
Creighton also said many factors influence a consumer's credit score, so it is difficult to attribute a change in a score to a single item in a credit report.
He said much of the increase in complaints was from bogus complaints filed by unscrupulous credit "repair" companies on behalf of their clients.
If the sharp rise in federal complaints reflected a true increase in reporting errors, Creighton said, banks and lenders would have noticed. "It's not real," he said.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has taken legal action against some credit-repair firms and advised consumers to be wary of companies charging fees to scrub negative, but current, data from credit reports.
There are signs that consumer credit has generally fared well during the pandemic. The average FICO score rose to 711 in October from 708 in the spring as borrowers dialed back spending, used government stimulus checks to pay bills and availed themselves of help from lenders, said a FICO spokesperson, Greg Jawski.
"The accommodations lenders have made to borrowers have been really helpful," Jawski said.