If your credit score is not where you want it to be, you probably already know that it is the negative items on your credit report that bring your score down the most.

These items will fall off eventually, but what is the best way to do this, and is there a way to speed up the process? Let’s dive in and see.

How long do negative items stay on your credit report?

It depends on what the item is, but most will fall off after seven years. Yes, I said seven years. I know that’s a long time. It’s even longer for a chapter 7 bankruptcy, which takes 10 years to fall off.

But before you hang your head in despair, you should know that the impact of negative items to your score will lessen before those seven (or even 10) years are up as long as you don’t mess up again. This lessening can start in a matter of months for a minor mishap like a 30-day late notation to more than a year for a really serious issue like a charge-off or a bankruptcy.

Is it possible to remove them before they fall off?

No matter what you may have heard or been told to the contrary, it is generally not possible to remove accurate and timely data from your credit report. If you really did default on a loan or a credit card and it hasn’t been seven years, that item is going to stay put.

This includes items that may be beyond your state’s statute of limitations (SOL). Items that are too old to be collected in court under the SOL that are less than seven years old are still going to show up on your credit report. It is also important to understand that until any legitimate debt is paid, you still owe it even if you can’t be sued or if it has fallen off of your credit report.

However, inaccuracies and out of date items on your credit report can be removed. We’ll discuss that further in just a bit.

How much will your score improve if you remove negative items?

It depends on two major factors: the length of your experience using credit and how serious the negative item was.

A long credit history will have less of an impact from a single negative item being reported. But a serious negative event like a charge-off will indicate that you are now a high-risk borrower and cause you to lose more points despite a long credit history. For those with a short credit history, also called a “thin file,” almost any negative item will cause a sizable drop in score. The higher the “thin” score to begin with, the bigger the drop.

But in credit scoring, sometimes just a few points are all you need to move into a higher tier. Those points could make a huge difference in real dollars on your next loan or whether or not you are approved for your next credit card. So, how can you remove items that shouldn’t be there?

How to remove credit report errors

Your first step will be to get copies of your credit reports from all three bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—and go over them carefully.

You can get your reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. Look for accounts you don’t recognize. As you check your credit reports, you may be surprised by how many accounts there are. Because your report lists negative information for seven years and positive information for much longer, you will probably see accounts, referred to as trade lines, that you’ve forgotten about, and perhaps even some that you didn’t realize you still had.

Verify account numbers, balances and dates opened and closed. If you find errors, you will need to document them carefully and communicate—in writing—those errors to the bureaus. Since the credit bureaus don’t always have exactly the same information about you in their credit reports, if you see an inaccuracy on one credit report, follow the dispute process and have it corrected.

But you may not be out of the woods. The other bureaus may have different inaccurate information. That is why you need to get all three reports to make sure all your information is accurate.

If the same error appears on two or all three reports, you need to dispute it only once. If the source of the information makes a change as a result of your dispute, that source has to tell the other bureaus about the change, too. But I recommend double-checking anyway.

Correcting all three reports is important because some lenders and businesses purchase a “three-in-one” report that includes a credit score and credit history information from each of the three bureaus. Each bureau has slightly different procedures for filing disputes, but all three allow you to dispute inaccurate or out-of-date information by phone, by mail, or online:

  • Equifax: Call the phone number provided for disputes on your credit report, and be sure to have the 10-digit credit report confirmation number (on your report) available. You can also dispute by mail at Equifax Information Services LLC, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374 (no confirmation number is required on written correspondence); or online.
  • Experian: You can dispute by phone using the toll-free number on your credit report; by mail at Experian, P.O. Box 9701, Allen, TX 75013; or online.
  • TransUnion: You can dispute information by phone at (800) 916-8800; by mail at TransUnion Consumer Solutions, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022-2000 (be sure to include the completed request for investigation form found on the website); or online.

Filing a dispute online

I used to recommend that you write (on paper) to initiate a dispute so that you could maintain a paper trail. Today, when you dispute online, the bureaus provide confirmation throughout the process. Just save or print the documents along the way to establish a paper trail for future reference. Either way, be sure to document your interactions.

Disputing online is faster, easier and more secure than doing it via the mail, but you may need to be able to upload documents to support your dispute. Think about sending a letter with all your identification, credit information and other documents. How many people handle that letter and may be tempted to open it?

When you dispute online at Experian, for example, you choose the items you want to dispute with a click. You’re walked through the process one step at a time. When you’ve finished, you submit the disputes and any documents you upload to support them. You can create a paper trail by printing the report, the dispute “shopping cart,” your documents and confirmation for free.

Filing a dispute via mail

If you choose to dispute items on your credit report via mail, write a letter stating which item(s) you’re disputing. Include any facts that explain your case and include copies (not originals) of documents. Enclose a copy of your credit report with the items in question circled or highlighted.

Be sure to provide your complete name and address and tell the company what your desired action is (correction or deletion). Send your dispute letter by certified mail, return-receipt requested, so you can document the fact that the letter was mailed and received. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.

If there are changes as a result of your dispute, you can request that the bureau send notices of corrections to anyone who received your report in the past six months. If you’ve applied for a job, you can have a corrected copy of your report sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.

Bottom line

While working on the negative things that may be on your credit report, don’t forget about the positive things that you can do right now that will pay off in a higher score in time. If you pay your bills on time, keep your credit utilization low and apply for new credit only when you need it, you will see your score rise over time.

Remember that the negatives fall off after seven years, but positive information will remain much longer. The more positive action you can take, the better for your score. Good luck!

Have a credit scoring question for Steve? Drop him a line at the Ask Bankrate Experts page!