A credit bureau is a company that collects and maintains individual credit information and sells it to lenders, creditors, and consumers in the form of a credit report. While there are dozens of credit bureaus across the U.S., most consumers are familiar with the big three: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The biggest credit bureaus do more than just compile and report consumer credit information. They also provide dozens of solutions that help businesses make better decisions.
Types of Information the Credit Bureaus Collect
The credit bureaus maintain a number of details related to you and your credit history, starting from the time you opened your first credit account. For instance, the credit bureau collects information about credit accounts: your repayment history; the amount of credit you have available; the amount of credit you're using; outstanding debt collections; and details on public records like bankruptcy, tax liens, foreclosure, and repossession.
Credit bureaus also maintain non-credit information about you, including your current and previous addresses, current and previous employers, and date of birth.
While personally identifying information used on your credit report isn't used to calculate your credit score, businesses may use it to verify your identity.
Where Do Credit Bureaus Get Information?
Credit bureaus depend on banks and other businesses to provide them with consumer information. Many of the companies you do business with send regular updates on your open accounts. Credit bureaus also get information about you from public court records.
Credit bureaus use different sources for obtaining information and they generally don't share information with each other. As such, your credit report may vary slightly from bureau to bureau.
Who Uses Credit Bureau Data?
Banks and credit card issuers are the most obvious users of the information provided by credit bureaus. A host of other companies turn to credit bureaus to make decisions about you. Employers, insurance companies, landlords, and debt collectors all request information from the credit bureaus.
Credit bureaus provide prescreening lists to banks and insurance companies to help these companies decide which consumers may take advantage of their products. Credit card issuers, for example, may request a list of consumers with high credit card balances to send these consumers offers for balance transfer credit cards. If you've ever wondered how pre-approved credit card offers wind up in your bank account or how banks know to offer an unsolicited refinance on your mortgage, this is how.
You can opt-out of prescreening and reduce unsolicited credit card offers by going to OptOutPrescreen.com.
Law Regarding Credit Bureaus
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law that defines how credit bureaus are supposed to operate. The FCRA gives consumers the right to an accurate credit report. If you find errors in your credit report, you're allowed to dispute these errors with the credit bureaus. The credit bureau is then required to do an investigation and correct the errors when necessary.
Credit Bureaus Providing Free Credit Reports
You also have the right to order your credit report from the three credit bureaus. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act—a 2003 amendment to the FCRA—gives you the right to one free credit report each year from each of the three major credit bureaus--Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. You can order your annual credit report from the major credit bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com.
In addition to your free annual credit report, the credit bureaus are required to give you a free credit report if:
- You had an application denied because of information on your credit report
- You're unemployed and are planning to start a job search within 60 days
- You're on welfare
- You're a victim of identity theft
Your Credit Information Could Have Errors
Don't take for granted that your credit report is accurate. One in 20 consumers has a credit report error that will lower their credit score to the point that it makes getting credit more expensive, according to a 2013 study by the Federal Trade Commission.
Another person's information can erroneously wind up on your credit report, especially if their name or other personal information is similar to yours. Federal law gives you the right to dispute errors on your credit report, but the process doesn't always work as easily as it should. In 2013, an Oregon woman won an $18 million lawsuit against Equifax, one of the big three credit bureaus, after it failed to correct a credit report error that she'd disputed 13 times over the course of two years.
These errors are sometimes supplied and confirmed by creditors and lenders who rely on the (sometimes erroneous) information in their computer systems rather than documentation provided by consumers.
Credit Bureaus Only Provide Information
While credit bureaus provide some or all the credit information that creditors and lenders use to deny or approve your applications, the bureau itself does not make a credit decision. If you believe that a decision has been made in error, you can ask the business to reconsider or check your credit report to make sure there are no inaccuracies that affect your ability to get approved.