Credit bureaus are the companies that collect and maintain consumer credit information from the lenders we use for credit cards, mortgages, and other types of loans. They help measure our perceived creditworthiness or the likelihood that we will pay our credit obligations on time. Then, this information is compiled and provided to businesses that are interested in our credit history.
Learn more about credit bureaus and why they are so important in our financial lives.
What Is a Credit Bureau?
Credit bureaus, also called "credit reporting agencies" (CRAs), are companies that collect and maintain consumer credit information. The three major CRAs in the U.S. are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Each is a publicly traded, for-profit company. While there are other smaller agencies, creditors and lenders are most likely to check your credit with one of the major CRAs.
The major CRAs receive credit-related information from the companies and lenders that you do business with. Lenders regularly report whether you're paying your bills on time, whether you've ever defaulted entirely, and how much debt you owe to them. The credit bureaus also pull relevant public records, like tax liens or bankruptcy information, from state and local courts. This information is included in your credit report as well.
CRAs can sell your information to companies that want to prescreen you for their products and services and to businesses that have a legally valid reason for reviewing it. For example, a company with whom you've applied for credit would have a valid reason to look at your credit history.
Employers and landlords typically cannot access your credit report without your written permission.
The 3 Major Credit Reporting Agencies
Learn more about each major credit reporting agency: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Equifax has been in business since 1899, and it operates or has investments in 24 countries. It offers credit fraud protection and identity theft protection to consumers, and it also sells credit reports to businesses. Consumers can purchase credit monitoring services that include their Equifax credit scores.
In 2017, Equifax's reputation was blemished when it was hacked and suffered a data breach that divulged the critical personal information of 147 million consumers. Equifax has since made a tool available on its site where you can check to see whether you were affected. The company also tried to make amends by offering a free credit monitoring service to consumers whose information was breached.
Experian got its start in London when businesspeople there began sharing information about customers who did not pay their bills. These people formed the Manchester Guardian Society in 1826, which later became an integral part of Experian and reached around the world. Experian employs more than 17,800 people in 45 countries and was named one of the "World's Most Innovative Companies" by Forbes in 2018.
Experian uses the FICO 8 credit score calculation system and offers a CreditWorks Premium plan by subscription. You'll get your credit score as well as your credit report from all three agencies if you subscribe for $24.99 per month.
TransUnion started as a holding company for a tank car company in 1968, and then it branched out from there into credit reporting. By 1988, the company had full coverage and consumer information on every market-active adult in the U.S. Its database includes over 1 billion consumers in more than 30 countries.
If you're worried that you've been a victim of identity theft or that you might be, you can place a freeze on your TransUnion credit report, and TransUnion will take the extra step of notifying the other two CRAs that you've done so. You can also purchase a credit monitoring subscription for $24.95 per month.
The Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) is another major company in the credit industry. FICO developed and maintains the FICO credit score, but it is not a credit reporting agency. Although FICO compiles credit scores based on data from the major credit bureaus, it does not collect credit report data on its own.
How the Credit Bureaus Are Regulated
The federal government has legislation—the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)—that regulates how these and other credit bureaus can and must operate. They're monitored by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), because they handle sensitive information for millions of people.
Credit reporting agencies can only provide information and analytical tools to help businesses make decisions about whether to offer you credit and what sort of interest rate they should charge you. The bureaus themselves don't make these decisions.
Why Your Information and Score May Differ by Credit Bureau
Credit bureaus often have business relationships with the same banks, credit card issuers, and even other businesses that you might have accounts with, but they're separate entities. Your account history will appear on one or all of your credit reports from these agencies because of their connections, but credit agencies don't share your account information with each other. Credit freezes and fraud alerts are exceptions to this rule.
Because each CRA is different, your score may vary among agencies. Your creditors might not report to all three major CRAs, which could cause a score discrepancy. Different credit bureaus may use different scoring models, leading to different scores. This is why it's important to check all three of your credit scores at least once a year. It also allows you to ensure that everything is correct.
When potential creditors and lenders check your credit, they may only pull one agency's report, because it's usually less expensive for a business to check just one credit report.
How to See Your 3 Credit Reports
You have a right to view your credit reports and receive a free one from each of the major CRAs once a year. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to make the request, or call 877-322-8228. You can also get a copy of your report at no charge if you've been turned down for credit, but you have to request it within 60 days of being declined.
Additional credit reports can be purchased directly from any of the CRAs at any time if you want to check where you stand more than once a year. Although they're separate entities, Equifax and Experian offer credit reports that include some information from the three major CRAs in a single document.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is eligible for free weekly credit reports from each of the three main credit reporting agencies. This benefit extends through April 20, 2022.
How to Dispute Information With the Credit Reporting Agencies
You might want to contact a credit agency directly to dispute any inaccurate information you've found in your report. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in four consumers had an error on their credit reports affecting their credit scores. One in five consumers had an error on at least one of their three credit reports that was later corrected by a credit reporting agency after being disputed.
It's a good idea to contact the credit bureau and the lender or company who submitted the inaccurate information. Do it in writing, and keep copies of all correspondence. Below is the contact information for each bureau:
Mail: P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348
Phone: 888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
Mail: P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
Mail: P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016
Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes
You can also reach out to any of the CRAs to place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report if you have reason to believe that you're a victim of identity theft. A credit freeze blocks access to your report, so you can't apply for credit if you've put one in place. This service is often free, and you can lift the freeze at any time.
Placing a fraud alert works in much the same way, and it stays in effect for one year. An alert is always free, but you might have to pay to place a credit freeze in some states. It's a good idea to freeze your account with all three major credit bureaus if you think there's a problem.
By checking your credit reports at least once a year, you can be sure to stay on top of any inaccurate information or fraudulent activity. It's best to clear up any disputes as quickly as you can, so they won't negatively affect your finances.