What to do when you find a mistake on your credit report

NEW YORK (CNN) – All the news about data breaches and identity fraud lately may have consumers eyeing their financial information a little more carefully.

Once an identity thief has pieces of personal data, like a social security number, they can use that information to open accounts you’ve heard nothing of, sometimes unnoticed until fraudulent charges appear on a credit report, when you apply for, lets say, a car loan.

By federal law, Americans are entitled to a free copy of their credit report from each of the three major reporting bureaus, equifax, experian and transunion, once every 12 months. Experts recommend staggering those three reports over the course of the year.

If you find errors or accounts that don’t appear to be yours, the federal trade commission advises contacting the credit reporting bureau in writing, and include copies of any documents that support your case. They’re required to investigate, unless the claim is found frivolous, and they’re required to give you an answer in writing.

Make a similar written dispute to the creditor who reported the bill or charge in question. The process can take between 30 and 90 days.

Remember, negative information, like high balances and unpaid bills, when accurate, usually stays on a credit report for seven years, and if you file for bankruptcy, that information stays for ten years, which can really affect your credit if you’re shopping for a car or a home.