Experian, TransUnion and Equifax now offer all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com.
In this article:
Credit bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies or consumer reporting companies, play an integral part in the financial lives of millions of people. The big three—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—collect and organize data to create consumer credit reports.
The bureaus don't make lending decisions or determine your credit scores. However, when you apply for a loan or line of credit, the creditor will often purchase a credit report and a score based on the report from a credit bureau.
The Three Major Consumer Credit Bureaus
The three major consumer credit bureaus are often lumped together, but they're competitors that try to create the largest and most accurate databases. Here's a little more background on the bureaus.
Experian's history dates back to the early 1800s when a group of tailors in London started sharing information about customers who missed payments. However, the Experian name and the company's U.S. presence are the result of a series of mergers and acquisitions that happened in the mid-1990s. Today, Experian is a global leader in the credit space, with information on over 1.5 billion consumers and 201 million businesses.
TransUnion was created in 1968 as the parent holding company for a railcar leasing company, but acquired the Credit Bureau of Cook County the next year. TransUnion continued building its credit reporting business and it is now one of the largest credit bureaus in the U.S. and Canada. It also has global credit reporting operations in the UK, India and parts of Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America.
Equifax is one of the oldest U.S.-based credit bureaus. The Retail Credit Co. was founded in 1899 and changed its name to Equifax in 1975. Equifax has also expanded into global markets over the years and offers credit-related services in Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe and Latin America.
Other Consumer Reporting Companies
There are also many specialty consumer reporting companies. Some focus on information that landlords want to know, such as whether you've ever been evicted, while other reporting companies track and report consumers' insurance claims or checking account history.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) maintains a list of consumer reporting companies with details on how you can request a free copy of your consumer report from each company.
How Do Credit Bureaus Get Information?
Most of the credit bureaus' information comes from other companies. In the credit world, these companies are called data furnishers. In everyday terms, they're the same financial institutions that you regularly interact with, including:
- Credit unions
- Credit card issuers
- Mortgage lenders
- Loan servicers
- Collection agencies
Data furnishers send information to the credit bureaus about their customers' accounts, such as when you opened an account, its current balance and whether you paid the bill on time. Generally, furnishers send an update every month.
Companies will also report information from your applications to the bureaus, which is one reason your credit report might contain your current and past names, addresses, telephone numbers and employers.
Furnishers aren't required to send information to the credit bureaus—it's all voluntary. But doing so allows furnishers to report late payments to the bureaus, incentivizing borrowers to pay their bills on time.
What Information Do Credit Bureaus Collect?
Although most of the information in your credit report comes from data furnishers, the credit bureaus collect public records data, such as bankruptcy filings. Tax liens and civil judgments used to be part of consumer credit reports, but the bureaus no longer add these to your credit reports.
What Information Isn't in Your Credit Report?
Even if the information is available, credit bureaus also don't include everything on your credit report. For example, Experian won't include information about a consumer's:
- Marital status
- Medical history
- Sexual orientation
- Political affiliations
- Criminal records
Your credit reports also don't contain information about your income, bank account or investment account balances.
Who Uses Credit Reports?
Many organizations use credit reports to better understand the financial risk associated with an individual. These include:
Creditors, such as lenders and credit card issuers, use credit reports and credit data from the credit bureaus in several ways:
- Decide whom to send offers to: Creditors might work with a credit bureau to create a list of consumers who meet certain criteria and then send those consumers a preapproved credit offer—like the credit card offers you get in the mail.
- Make decisions about an application: When someone applies for credit, the creditor will often use a credit report and credit score to decide whether to approve the application and the terms to offer.
- Monitor customers' creditworthiness: Creditors regularly purchase credit reports and scores to monitor existing accounts. They may close your account, offer you a card upgrade or change your credit limit based on changes in your credit report.
In some states, employers can use credit checks when hiring or promoting someone. This may be more common within the financial sector, for roles related to financial management or if the position requires security clearance.
Employers never receive a credit score with the credit report. And the credit report they receive is different from the one given to lenders. For example, it doesn't include your date of birth or account numbers.
Landlords also might use a credit report and credit score when reviewing rental applications. Someone with a poor credit history might have trouble qualifying for a rental or have to pay a larger security deposit.
Many Other Organizations Also Use Credit Bureau Data
Almost every company that has to verify its users' identities—including financial institutions, casinos and online marketplaces—might use data from the credit bureaus.
Although they don't receive a credit report, the companies might verify that the identifying information someone provides matches what's in a credit bureau's database. If there's a mismatch in the name, address or date of birth, that could be a sign of identity fraud.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act Regulates Credit Bureaus
Federal and state laws govern what can and cannot appear in your credit reports and who can request a copy of your credit report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is one of the most important laws related to credit reporting. Some of its major rules include:
- Consumers can request a free copy of their credit report. You have the right to get a free copy from each credit bureau at least once every 12 months, although the credit bureaus now offer free reports weekly via AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Negative information, such as late payments, generally must be removed from credit reports after seven years. However, certain bankruptcies can remain for 10 years.
- A person or company must have a "permissible purpose" to request a copy of a consumer's credit report. These include when a consumer gives their permission and when a creditor is making a lending decision after receiving an application.
- Consumers have the right to dispute information in their credit reports. The credit bureau must investigate non-frivolous disputes and verify, correct or delete the disputed information.
The FCRA applies to all consumer reporting companies, not just the big three.
Why Do I Have Different Credit Scores for Each Bureau?
The credit score you see depends on three things: the credit scoring model, the credit report it's scoring and when the report is scored.
Your credit scores could be different because:
- Your credit reports aren't identical. Data furnishers are not required to share information with the credit reporting agencies, and when they do, they can choose to report to one, two or all three. Those differences in the information that appears on your credit reports from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax can result in different credit scores.
- You're comparing different types of credit scores. There are hundreds of different credit scoring models, if not more. FICO and VantageScore® develop scoring models that the credit bureaus use, and the credit bureaus also have their own scoring models. So, even if your three credit reports happen to be identical, you could have different scores depending on the model.
- You're comparing scores from different time periods. If you use several programs to check your credit scores, you might find the scores differ even if they're based on the same credit bureau report and score model. This can happen if the programs don't update your credit report and score at the same time.
You won't necessarily know which type of credit score or credit report a lender will use. However, rest assured that the steps you take to improve one credit score will generally help your other credit scores as well.
A credit bureau is a company that gathers and organizes information about consumers and businesses. They focus on identity and financial data, such as your name, address and your history with various loans and credit cards.
Credit bureaus use the information they gather to create credit reports. Creditors often purchase credit reports and an accompanying score when making lending decisions and managing existing credit accounts. Credit bureaus also create, offer and sell related products and services, such as marketing, identity verification and fraud prevention tools that incorporate credit data.
You can get a copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com, directly from one of the credit bureaus or from companies that purchase and resell credit reports. Requesting your credit report will never hurt your credit score.
Monitor Your Experian Credit Report for Free
You can check your Experian credit report for free with an Experian account. You'll also receive a FICO® Score☉ based on your credit report and free credit report and score monitoring. The account also offers insight into your credit report, such as the factors that are helping or hurting your credit, and allows you to easily manage who can access your credit report.