Identity Theft Wrecked My Credit Score. Here’s How I Got It Back Above 700

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Once upon a time, I was 18 and did not take my mother’s warnings about shredding documents and protecting my social security number seriously.

True story: Someone opened an AT&T account in my name.

Not recognizing the charges and not knowing any better, I simply didn’t pay them. Soon, the account was in collections.

I was young enough not to know or care much about my credit score or what it meant to have an account in collections. Besides, it was only like $300. How much could that possibly affect me?

To be honest, my initial motivator was the never-ending stream of phone calls from the collections agency. My phone was ringing off the hook, and when I told them the debt wasn’t mine, they didn’t care.

Then, I decided to use my free annual credit check — and found that I was solidly in the “poor” category, with a score hovering below 600.

I was young, but I knew my creditworthiness could affect a whole host of life decisions and experiences I really wanted to have, like purchasing a house or car, or even getting a real job.

Turns out $300 can be a really big deal, after all. I had to do something.

The First Step: I Filed a Dispute

First, I called AT&T directly to see if they could invalidate the debt.

But, of course, when they asked me to confirm my identity for the account, everything matched.

That’s what identity theft means.

I told them I’d never heard of the address or phone number they mentioned, and while they notated the account, the phone calls didn’t stop.

So I filed a dispute directly with the credit bureaus online. I filled out the forms, clicked out of the window and considered my credit troubles finished. Sure enough, for a while, the phone calls stopped.

But they came back. And when I re-opened my credit report, the false account was still there.

Accounts in Collections: Heading Straight to the Source

Although the credit bureaus are legally required to conduct an investigation, if the original creditor (in this case, AT&T) tells them to step off, they pretty much do.

And once an account is already in collections, the creditor doesn’t even own it anymore.

They’ve resigned themselves to the fact you’re never going to pay, and have (usually) sold the debt for a fraction of its sum to a collections agency in an attempt to make something off the account.

In this case, the best practice is to go straight to the source and deal with the collections agencies directly. They’re the ones who stand to make money on you at this point.

Here’s the good news: The collections folks are legally required to prove you owe the debt — or strike the account from your record if they can’t. And because they’re the third party in the creditor/debtor relationship, they almost never have all the paperwork required to do so.

That means if you write them a letter with the right verbiage (think: legalese), you’ll likely see the false account fall off very quickly.

How to Fix Your Credit

My next steps were simple, thanks to a website I found called Credit Infocenter.

It’s full of free resources for people in my position, trying desperately to fix their falsely maligned credit.

I read their comprehensive article on debt validation (which I’ve just summarized, in very broad strokes), and sent a tweaked version of their sample validation request letter to the collections agency on my tail.

Bonus: a cease and desist clause is written in, requiring that all future correspondence from the agency must be conducted via written mail. Peace out, never-ending phone calls!

Then, I waited 30 days… and got a letter from the agency apologizing for the inconvenience and confirming that the account had been closed and stricken from my record.

A glance at my credit report a few days later showed it was true! It was that simple — one letter, and my credit score was on the road to recovery.

Today, my score is over 700, and I was able to buy a new car with a low-interest loan.

If you’re like me, once you have your money under control, you won’t want to lose it ever again.

You can use a free site like Credit Sesame to keep tabs on your finances. Credit Sesame’s free identity theft protection will alert you to important changes in your credit report (like someone trying to apply for credit in your name), and it offers $50,000 in identity theft insurance.

Before driving face first into a total credit nightmare like mine, you might as well keep tabs on your stuff — especially if you can do it for free.

Your Mileage May Vary

It’s important to note every credit holder’s circumstances are different.

Credit Infocenter’s step-by-step guide states many letter-writers simply never hear back from the agency, and lists next steps to take should that happen to you.

Not every case will be as simple as mine. Although my credit score is pretty awesome now, it didn’t happen overnight. It took me several years to move my credit from “Poor” to “Good.”

Even a seriously negative factor, like an account in collections, isn’t the only one affecting your credit score. Part of the reason it took me a long time to move up 100 points is because all of my accounts are relatively new — I’m still young(ish)!

But even if it’s not an instant, easy fix, it’s so worth it to reach out to a collections agency to repair your credit.

You’ll carry your credit score around for the rest of your life, and it takes seven years for negative factors to fall off your report if you don’t intervene.

Tweaking, printing and mailing a letter couldn’t possibly take more than an hour of your time.  And it’s a way better investment than those next two Netflix episodes you have waiting.

I promise.

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a WSET-certified wine geek who’s written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets.