FTC: 1 in 5 Have Time Bombs in Their Credit Reports

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You may now know it, but you could have an error on your credit report that would result in your paying more for a home, credit card or car.

Says who? Says Uncle Sam, in a report out this week.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, 5% of Americans have mistakes on at least one of the three major credit reports -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax ( EFX) -- that could cost them more for major purchases.

Furthermore, 20% of U.S. consumers have a mistake on their credit report that may not trigger an immediate decline in their credit scores but could hurt their scores down the road.

Credit scores are the ultimate kitchen table economist issue. Let unattended, those errors could really hit Americans where it hurts -- in the wallet.

"These are eye-opening numbers for American consumers," says Howard Shelanski, director of the FTC's Bureau of Economics. "The results of this first-of-its-kind study make it clear that consumers should check their credit reports regularly. If they don't, they are potentially putting their pocketbooks at risk."

Here's a snapshot of relevant points from the FTC report:
  • 25% of U.S. consumers found errors on their credit reports that could crimp their credit health.
  • 20% of consumers had an error on their credit report that was corrected by the credit agency after the mistake was disputed.
  • 80% of consumers who filed disputes had the mistake "modified" by the credit report agency.
  • 5% of consumers had a maximum score change of more than 25 points, and only one in 250 consumers had a maximum score change of more than 100 points.

"Credit reports play a crucial role in determining consumers' financial discipline and responsibility," says Howard Dvorkin, CPA and founder of Consolidated Credit. "Detecting credit report errors allows consumers to correct inaccurate information that could potentially lead to denied loans and high interest rates."

Dvorkin advises consumers to check their credit report every 90 days -- credit reports are free through annualcreditreport.com, FTC officials note -- and contact the credit bureau right away to fix a mistake. That's especially important before buying a home, car or applying for a credit card or insurance policy.

To tackle low credit scores, he says, consumers should call creditors and negotiate a lower interest rate. Somewhat surprisingly, creditors are receptive to a lower rate if they think it will help them collect their debt more quickly.

Consolidating credit card debt is another good way to bump up your credit score, Dvorkin adds. That makes it easier to pay down debt and increase the average age of revolving credit lines, which can help the credit utilization ratio.

Managing your credit health doesn't have to be a full-time job.

Only an hour or two per month can mean the difference between a good credit score, and lower interest rates on big purchases, and a lower score that could add more to your debt burden.