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How difficult is it to remove a collection account you didn’t know you had (and didn’t even owe) from your credit report? A couple we’ll call Jason and Karen could tell you. They want to buy a house, and he recently retired from the military. Thus, they want their credit to look as good as it possibly can.

But there is a big, ugly negative they learned about in 2012 when they went to buy a vehicle. Jason had three collections on one of his credit reports. They were from the previous year, when his then-estranged wife had taken her child (his stepchild) to a non-military doctor who was not covered by his military insurance. He was unaware of it until a car dealership told him he had three collection accounts on his report. He had otherwise excellent credit, and he was able to get a loan, but at higher interest rates than he would have liked. (If you wonder how your credit affects what you have to pay when you borrow money, you can see the impact here.)

Neither had checked their credit ahead of time. Both had little use for it, outside student and car loans, and they did not routinely use credit cards. Karen had never even applied for one.

Each of the collections on Jason’s report was for less than $100. A member of the military on active duty at the time, he worried about having any blemish on his credit. He contacted the doctor’s office and asked that the account be switched to one of the child’s parents, but they refused, Jason said. So he paid the bills, thinking that would take them off his credit report. However, paying a collection account typically does not remove the collection from your credit reports. (A lot of people expect it to work that way, then are surprised to discover payments that may have strained their finances didn’t actually help their credit.)

He contacted the collector, explaining that he had paid the bill — despite believing that he should not be held responsible — and now wanted it removed. The collector refused. “They kept telling us they had every right to keep reporting it,” said Karen.

Jason and Karen didn’t want to be surprised by information on their credit report again, so they signed up for a credit monitoring service. And in May, he disputed the collections with the credit bureau. He was told the information on the report was valid, and his request was denied.

The couple sought help from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the Better Business Bureau, filing complaints against the collector. Jason called the medical office where the bill originated, and was told to call the collection agency. The next complaint was to the Better Business Bureau, against the medical office where the bill originated. A few days later, Jason got a phone call from the doctor’s office apologizing for the mistake, and saying that the collection agency had been told to remove the collections from his credit report. The very next day, his credit-monitoring service informed him that the collections were gone — and that his credit score had risen 22 points.

It was challenging, but Jason is glad that he kept trying. “I wish I had thought to file these complaints earlier so I might not have had to pay the bills, but I am just happy to have them off my reports,” he says. “Collection agencies don’t have all the control, sometimes it just takes some persistence. Don’t give up, I almost did and would have had this on my record for another four years.”

As it is, he and Karen are about to buy a house. When they last checked, his educational credit score USAA provides was 678, and hers was 724. Before the auto loan, Karen had little experience with credit. She now uses a credit card lightly to ensure she’ll have good credit when she needs it. They are still paying a higher interest rate on their car loan than they would like, but they plan to refinance their car after they close on their new home. Their now-good credit should help make that possible. (If you haven’t checked your credit recently, you can get a free credit report summary every month from Credit.com.)

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