I always hate it when I have to tell someone that their security clearance is in jeopardy, but I really hate it when the clearance holder doesn’t see the bad news coming. That happens frequently in cases where the clearance-holder has “cleaned-up” their credit report.

“But wait!,” I imagine you’re probably thinking. “I thought removing delinquent debts from my credit report was a good thing?”

That’s correct – but how you do it matters. And, unfortunately, many clearance-holders don’t understand or fully appreciate the distinction between two, similarly-sounding options.

The problematic option is using a so-called “credit repair” company. In the non-cleared world, these companies can provide a potentially valuable, albeit limited service. Clients sign up for their services, and the credit repair company then sends out what is known in the financial industry as debt validation letters to creditors of delinquent debts identified on the client’s credit report.

In simple terms, these letters are demands to creditors to prove that the debt is legitimate. Federal law requires that they produce certain information upon demand; if the creditor can’t do it, they must remove the debt from your credit report.

It sounds like a quick and easy fix to removing undesirable items from a credit report, and it can be. But what works in the non-cleared world for potentially raising one’s credit score and “cleaning up” derogatory information doesn’t cut it in the cleared world. As far as the federal government is concerned, handling debts this way isn’t a good-faith effort to resolve them. Indeed, the government will often argue that it doesn’t resolve them at all.

Blitzing creditors with debt validation letters is typically viewed as a cop-out: a way of exploiting the system to your advantage and dodging a legitimate obligation to pay. Security officials really don’t like that for two reasons. First, it doesn’t demonstrate the type of integrity and fair dealing that they expect to see from clearance-holders, who are viewed as entering into a fiduciary relationship with the government to safeguard classified information. Second, it does nothing to demonstrate that the individual has addressed the root of their financial problems and established that they aren’t likely to be repeated.

Now, let’s contrast debt validation letters and “credit repair companies” with the second, similarly-sounding option: legitimate, good-faith disputes and credit counseling/debt consolidation services. If you have a legitimate, good-faith reason to dispute a particular debt (e.g., it’s fraudulent, the amount is demonstrably inaccurate, or you didn’t get the goods or services promised or the quality promised), then dispute away. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sample letters on their website for doing that; be sure to keep a good paper trail demonstrating the basis for your dispute and what you’ve done about it. Similarly, credit counseling/debt consolidation services help consumers establish plans for repaying creditors in a structured and financially feasible way. That’s a far cry from simply saying “prove that I owe you.”

Unfortunately, the temptation of paying a nominal fee to a “credit repair” company entices a lot of clearance-holders into going down that road. But simply because a debt is no longer appearing on a credit report doesn’t mean it isn’t reportable on personnel security forms if it is otherwise within the scope of the questions asked. That means the government will want to know what you’ve done to resolve the debt. If your answer is that you’re absolved of liability because the creditor couldn’t validate the debt, be prepared for a bumpy ride ahead.

 

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/.