Halloween Horror Story #1: They Ruined My Credit!

My credit-card company removed inaccurate information from my account — but not from my credit report. What can I do?

All this week, we'll reveal terrifying tales of personal finances gone horribly wrong — and offer advice on how to expel the demons.

The Problem: Several years ago, I bought a belt at a store using my Providian credit card. I subsequently returned the belt, but for some reason it wasn't credited to my account. About the same time, I stopped using that credit card. I accidentally let the bill go for a couple of months, and ended up getting charged late fees for the returned belt. Once I realized what had happened, I called Providian, and got the finance charges and late charges waived.

Unfortunately, these late payments are still showing up on my credit reports. To make matters worse, Chase bought a large number of accounts from Providian, including mine, and now Chase is listing the late payments on my credit report as well. It won't remove them because it doesn't have a record of what happened.

It seems quite unfair to leave these marks on my credit record when my final statement from Providian shows quite clearly that it waived all late charges. What I can do to rectify this situation?

— Anonymous

The Solution: Um, we hate to scold, but we have to ask: What were you thinking?! Bills are not something to be ignored — even if you're fully confident that you don't owe anything. As you've discovered, mistakes do happen. And the longer you wait, the messier they become.

Had you checked your bill and disputed the charge within 60 days of the date that the statement was mailed to you, you would've been protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which states that a creditor can't charge you interest on the disputed amount — or report it to the credit bureaus — until the dispute is resolved.

Unfortunately, since you waited so long, there's no federal law protecting you, says credit expert Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook." Compounding the situation is the fact that the account was bought by another bank, which has no record of what happened. "It's (your) word against their word," Detweiler says. "And frankly, in this type of case, usually they're skeptical about the consumer's side of the story."

However, if it was indeed a mistake on part of Providian, it can be fixed, says Providian spokesperson Alan Elias. Here's what you need to do.

First, call Providian's customer-service center and explain the situation. Even though Chase now handles the account, Providian might agree that a mistake was made — and report the new, accurate information to the credit bureaus, Elias says. Should Providian agree to do this, be sure to get a letter stating as much. You should then send that letter to Chase, with certified-mail return-receipt requested, and keep a copy for your records.

With the proper documentation in hand, you should then ask Chase to "re-age" the account, which means removing those late-payment notations from the reports it sends to the bureaus. Again, there are no guarantees that Chase will be willing to work with you — but for the sake of good customer service, it probably will, Detweiler says. "How easy it will be to do, with that kind of large organization, is another question," she says.

With both creditors, ask to speak to a manager, since, in most cases, customer- — service reps don't have the authority to re-age accounts. And arm yourself with patience — it will likely take more than a couple of phone calls. In the worst-case scenario, you could always add an explanation to your file at the credit bureaus.

The moral of this story? "Always look at your statements," Detweiler says. "If you have any dispute, make sure you put it in writing, because that protects your rights under federal law."