(MONEY Magazine) – Q Three years ago someone opened a cell-phone account in my name. After a long dispute, including collection notices (I even called my state attorney general), Sprint confirmed it wasn't mine and promised my credit would be cleaned up. But the delinquent item is still on two of my three reports. I'm in the military, where perfect credit is a must. Mine's been spotless for 19 years. Help! --F.W., San Antonio
ANSWER In personal finance, as in golf, it's all about the follow-through. Yes, you were the victim of fraud. Yes, Sprint should have been more responsive sooner. And yes, an official-looking letter to the collection agency (and the attorney general's office) should have erased the glitch in 90 painless days. If modern life were only that simple.
But when you're relying on three bureaucracies--Sprint, the collector and the credit bureaus--to relay information correctly, it's not enough to cross your fingers and hope justice has been done. Since your job has security clearances associated with it, a credit ding could cost you your career.
Everyone has the right to dispute an error on their credit report, which you could have done at any time.
First we asked Sprint to investigate the matter again, just to make sure there weren't any other fraudulent accounts. There weren't. Then we challenged the item by filing a dispute with the two credit agencies, Experian and TransUnion. We sent a letter of explanation and included copies of the correspondence from Sprint, which confirmed that the account wasn't yours.
Upon receipt of a challenge, a credit reporting agency must investigate the claim, usually within 30 days. We also included the contact information of people familiar with your case at both Sprint and the collection agency so the credit bureau investigator could easily confirm your challenge. Since Sprint and the collection agency were on alert, your problem got attention in record time. But to make sure your report stays clean, check it again in three months. Fingers crossed.