Worried man © Corbis

Credit reporting can be very confusing for consumers. Many of us often wonder: How do the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- gather the information in our credit reports, and why do they sometimes disagree?

A Credit.com reader using the screen name "Tammy" is wondering exactly these things. Tammy wrote that she had two judgments against her for unpaid debts. Such judgments are noted in credit reports and can do serious damage to a consumer's credit score. In Tammy's case, it means that she's actually getting dinged twice: once for the unpaid debts and again for the judgments. Both wound up on her credit reports, where they will hold down her credit scores for the next seven years

There are a number of situations when a consumer can successfully get the credit reporting bureaus to delete the judgments from their reports, such as proving the debt belonged to someone else, was already paid or that the statute of limitations has already expired.

Tammy says she asked all three credit bureaus for a deletion. One credit bureau, TransUnion, agreed, but the other two refused, saying that the debt "remains" or is "verified" (which means the bureau verified that it belongs to Tammy, explains Barry Paperno, Credit.com's community director). Tammy didn't respond to emails, so we don't know any more specifics of her case, but her inquiry boils down to a simple question: "How can I get them to remove these items?"

The first thing to know, Paperno says, is that the credit bureaus reach different conclusions all the time. Maybe TransUnion's search of public records didn't turn up Tammy's judgment, but the other two bureaus did.

"They may have come up with different results," Paperno says. "Also, the bureaus do use their judgment."

What Tammy should do now depends on the situation, Paperno says. Here are three scenarios:

  • The debt belongs to someone else. This is unlikely, since a local court issued two separate judgments against Tammy, finding that she owes the debt. But maybe the court made a mistake. Maybe the real debtor is Tammy's mother or grandmother, who shares the same name. If so, Tammy can file paperwork to Equifax and Experian proving that she isn't the debtor. This might mean copies of birth certificates or Social Security cards to prove she has a different birthday, utility bills to prove she has a different address or a marriage license to prove she has a different middle name.
  • The debt is already paid. Maybe Tammy paid the bills before they even went to collections, in which case she can get the judgments removed from her credit. Or maybe she paid them after she received her judgments, in which case she can get the bureaus to change their descriptions of the debts to "paid." The latter won't boost her score, Paperno says, but it also doesn't hurt.
  • The debt is old. Judgments and unpaid debts stay on a person's credit report for about seven years and six months. Maybe these judgments are six and a half years old, and someone at TransUnion decided to give Tammy a pass. If this is the case, Tammy should keep bugging the other two and hope for the same result. "They do nice things for people sometimes," Paperno says. Or Tammy could simply wait a few months for the judgments, and the damage they're causing her score, to go away.

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