Credit reporting agencies, also called credit bureaus, provide an important service for creditors and consumers alike. They collect and maintain information about an individual’s dealings with past and current credit accounts.
Understanding how credit reporting agencies work and how to access your credit history can help you build and maintain a good credit score, prevent identity theft, and more.
What Is a Credit Bureau?
The three main credit bureau reporting companies do two things: gather information about consumer credit information and history as reported by their creditors and provide those reports to prospective lenders when you apply for credit.
The information found in your credit report can help a lender determine your creditworthiness. This gives them the information they need to decide whether to extend credit to you and at what cost in the form of interest and fees.
While these credit report companies don’t generate the credit scores used by lenders, credit score agencies like FICO use the information found in your credit reports to calculate your credit score, another factor creditors use in lending decisions.
How Do Credit Bureaus Work?
Credit bureaus maintain a massive database of credit reports for hundreds of millions of Americans. Using personal information like your Social Security number and date of birth, the credit reporting agencies work with creditors, who report information about your credit accounts, which the credit bureaus use to create your credit report.
For example, if you get a free copy of your credit report — which you can request every 12 months through AnnualCreditReport.com — you’ll typically be able to see all of your open credit accounts, as well as some accounts you’ve closed, along with information about your balances, payments and more.
When you apply for credit, the creditor typically requests a copy of your credit report from one or more of the credit bureaus, along with your credit score that’s based on your report, to determine your creditworthiness.
How Are Credit Bureaus Regulated?
The three nationwide credit bureaus are private companies, but they’re regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act Consumer, ensuring fair and accurate reporting. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) supervises the credit bureaus to ensure they are functioning effectively and fairly.
What Services do Credit Bureaus Offer?
In addition to the credit reporting process, credit bureaus also offer various services to both consumers and businesses. For example, consumers can sign up for credit reporting services — Experian’s is free, but Equifax and TransUnion charge a subscription fee — and identity theft protection services, which are generally paid.
Equifax also offers credit reporting services for small businesses and corporations and information verification services for creditors, employers, and government agencies.
What Are the 3 Major Credit Reporting Agencies
The three national credit bureaus are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Here’s what to know about each.
Experian is a multinational company based in Dublin, Ireland. Its U.S. division, however, is headquartered in Costa Mesa, California. The agency was officially founded in 1996.
One of the bureau’s notable services is Experian Boost, which allows consumers to add payments on utility and cell phone accounts, as well as streaming services, to their Experian credit reports to increase their FICO credit score.
Equifax is also a multinational company based in the U.S., with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The company was founded in 1899 as a retail credit company. While it does offer some consumer-facing products, its services outside of credit reporting are more geared toward commercial and government needs.
Equifax notably suffered a massive data breach in 2017, which impacted more than 140 million Americans.
TransUnion was founded in 1968 as a holding company for a railroad leasing organization, but the following year, it acquired the Credit Bureau of Cook County, which paved the way for its current position as one of the three largest national credit reporting agencies in the U.S.
While it’s headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, TransUnion offers services in dozens of countries.
What Are the Differences Between the Credit Agencies?
While each of the three national credit bureaus offers credit reporting and monitoring services to both creditors and consumers, their actual services can differ. For example, Experian offers consumers free access to their credit report with the bureau, as well as their FICO credit score, which most U.S.-based creditors use in their lending decisions.
However, the other two charge for their credit monitoring services and TransUnion doesn’t offer a FICO score at all. Instead, it provides the VantageScore credit score, which was developed in a joint venture of all three credit bureaus.
They also offer varying products and services outside of credit reporting for consumers, businesses, and government agencies.
How Can You Get Your Credit Scores from All 3 Credit Bureaus?
You can get your credit scores from each bureau directly from the bureau, with Experian’s basic credit monitoring service being free and the others paid. Alternatively, you can get free access to your credit score through some financial institutions like credit card companies, banks, and credit unions.
You’ll also get your credit score from one or more of the three credit bureaus when you apply for credit and get denied — creditors are required by law to provide this information, along with the reasons for the denial.
FAQs About Credit Reporting Agencies
While most of the information credit bureaus collect is accurate, mistakes may arise, and some accounts may even be fraudulent. If you want to dispute something that’s inaccurate, you can file a dispute directly with the credit reporting agencies, or you can hire a credit repair company and pay a fee to have them dispute the information on your behalf.
While all three credit bureaus use similar data collection techniques, you may have a different credit score with each one. This is because creditors don’t always report information to all three bureaus. Additionally, you may be looking at different scoring models — for example, FICO and VantageScore consider similar information but weigh the various factors differently.
There are actually more than three credit reporting agencies in the U.S. Many smaller agencies service different purposes, but Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are the three largest and generally serve the same purpose.
Other consumer reporting agencies include CoreLogic Credco, SageStream, Innovis, LexisNexis, MicroBilt/PRBC, ChexSystems, Clarity Services.
Depending on what you need, you may be able to contact them through their websites, by phone, or via mail. Here are the customer service phone numbers for each agency:
When you apply for credit, lenders typically use the 5 C’s of credit to gauge your creditworthiness:
Character: This includes your credit history and how well you manage your credit accounts.
Capacity: Lenders will review your debt-to-income ratio or the percentage of your monthly income that goes toward your debt obligations.
Capital: This refers to the amount of money an applicant has, typically for a down payment on certain loans like mortgages and auto loans.
Collateral: If you’re buying a home, vehicle, or another large asset, the lender may consider the asset’s value and require it as collateral, allowing the lender to repossess the asset if you fail to make your payments.
Conditions: The loan conditions can refer to the interest rate and fees associated with the loan or the borrower’s purpose for applying.