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- The three major credit bureaus that track your credit history are Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
- The credit reports that these credit reporting agencies create are used to calculate credit scores.
- The credit bureaus are required to offer identity protection services and let you view your credit report once a year.
Your credit score is one of the most important numbers in your financial life. When you apply for a loan of any kind — from a new credit card to a mortgage — lenders will reference your credit score to get a feel for how big a risk you would be. A higher score means you are less of a risk, so lenders can ease your interest rates.
Most people know what a credit score is, but many don’t fully understand where they come from. Behind the scenes, credit scores and the credit reports they rely on are tracked and managed by three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
These three major credit bureaus play a powerful role in your finances. Here’s what you need to know about Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion and what makes each of them unique.
What is a credit bureau?
A credit bureau, also called a credit reporting agency, tracks your activity related to credit, which encompasses debt, borrowing, and a few other limited activities. They compile this information into a credit report which is condensed into a credit score by FICO, VantageScore, or other credit scoring models. Lenders use the information on these credit reports to assess your credit risk.
Credit bureaus keep tabs on everyone’s data — whether they like it or not. Even if you had no idea they existed, odds are the credit bureaus have records on you if you’ve ever had any credit card, auto loan, mortgage loan, or other loan accounts in the US, particularly in the last 10 years. They get this information from your creditors and public records.
Credit bureaus are heavily regulated by the government, particularly the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Though it’s important to remember that these agencies are multinational for-profit, publicly traded companies. They make money by selling your credit reports to banks, credit card companies, and other lenders for permitted uses such as credit, insurance, employment, or rental housing.
Credit bureaus are required to provide services to protect their consumers, mandated by various laws. Consumers can protect themselves against identity theft by requesting a credit freeze from the credit bureaus, which seals their credit report from new lenders, so potential identity thieves can’t open new lines of credit. Consumers can also request a fraud alert from their credit bureau, which compels lenders to take reasonable measures to check a borrower’s identity.
Consumers are also entitled to one free credit per year report from each of the major credit bureaus. However, until the end of 2023, you can request a free credit report from each credit bureau once a week.
What are the three major credit bureaus?
There are quite a few credit reporting bureaus, though the three main credit bureaus that your lender will go to when checking your credit report are Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. The services that these bureaus offer are largely the same, though there are a few differences that are useful to know.
Experian is a global data analytics company and credit reporting agency with details on about 245 million individuals and 27 million businesses in the US. In addition to credit scoring information, it tracks household demographics, vehicle records, and other large data sets.
Experian offers free access to credit reports and credit scores through the Experian website or app. It offers extensive credit education resources to help consumers improve their credit, and a free credit monitoring service for consumers to keep track of changes in their credit reports. Experian also offers a paid credit locking service, which prevents certain third parties from viewing your credit report. This lock comes with $1 million in identity theft insurance.
One unique feature at Experian is Experian Boost, a product that allows you to add information from utility or phone bills as part of your positive credit history, which can instantly improve your credit score.
While Experian has a generally positive reputation, it earned negative press in 2015 for its role in a data breach where the information of 15 million consumers was potentially exposed. It was also fined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2017 for providing misleading credit score information to consumers.
Experian traces its roots to 1968 and was established in its current form in 1996. It’s legally headquartered in Ireland and its stock is listed on the London Stock Exchange. It is a component of the FTSE 100 index, a major index for UK stocks similar to the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P 500 in the US. The operational headquarters for the company is located in Nottingham, UK, and Experian has a major US office in Costa Mesa, CA.
TransUnion is an international credit and data reporting company with information on one billion consumers in over 30 countries. TransUnion data covers over 200 million consumers in the US and offers credit improvement resources to help you improve your credit history and score.
TransUnion is a data source for several popular credit scoring apps, including Credit Karma and the credit score section of the budgeting app Mint. Like its top two competitors, TransUnion offers credit reports and/or scores to customers in the financial sector, employers, landlords, and others who need access to credit details. TransUnion also offers a paid credit locking service with $1 million in identity theft insurance and a paid credit monitoring service.
TransUnion is based in Chicago and was founded in 1968. It’s publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange and is a component of the Russell 1000 index. It has a generally positive reputation, though it has run into challenges, particularly around transparency for how it charges for TransUnion consumer products. In April of 2022, the CFPB charged TransUnion, two of its subsidiaries, and a long-time executive director for deceptive marketing around their credit scores and credit-related products.
Equifax is a multinational credit reporting agency that operates in 25 countries. It tracks consumer data on more than 222 million US consumers. Equifax offers a range of business and consumer credit products. Major consumer products include a free credit lock product and comprehensive credit monitoring solution.
This credit bureau is perhaps best known for the data breach in 2017 that affected 147 million consumers in all 50 states. This led to a settlement worth more than $575 million and included both civil penalties and an offer of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection to affected individuals.
Major industries supported by Equifax credit reports include financial firms, insurance companies, retailers, healthcare providers, utilities, government agencies, and other businesses.
Equifax, founded in 1899, is headquartered in Atlanta, and its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Equifax is a member of the S&P 500.
Why are my credit reports different from each other?
If you were to pull all three credit reports at once, you would likely find that they don’t exactly match. If you get your credit score from the three credit reporting bureaus, they would probably be roughly similar but, again, not exactly the same.
The differences could be caused by timing differences between updates of your credit report. For example, TransUnion might’ve gotten data on your credit balances just after you made a big payment, so the credit scoring algorithm might’ve given you a few points extra. They could be caused by a credit account reporting to one credit bureau and not the others, though this is less likely as most creditors report to all three bureaus. You may also be comparing a VantageScore credit score at one credit bureau to your FICO score from another bureau.
If one of your scores is very different from the other two, chances are there is an error somewhere in your credit report that’s bringing your credit down. Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax get data from banks and other companies through big data files from banks, credit unions, credit card companies, and other sources. This information is cobbled together to form your credit report, which makes errors a common occurrence. According to a study by the Federal Trade Commission, about one in five consumers have errors on their credit reports.
The credit bureaus use different data sources and use different models, which can account for some differences. However, it’s important to review your credit report periodically to hunt down incorrect negative information.
How to dispute errors on your credit report
For the roughly 34% of Americans with an error on their credit report, it’s a good idea to find and remove that incorrect information. Doing so could increase your credit score and improve your approval odds or interest rates for future loans.
When you find an error on your credit report, you can work with the credit bureau and company that supplied the information to get it corrected. This is accomplished through a process called a dispute.
Entering a dispute for your credit report with any of the three credit-reporting agencies is easiest for most people to do online. If you’re not comfortable managing this process on the web, you can generally also handle it by mail.
Here are links to start a dispute at Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
Freezing your credit reports to avoid fraud
One benefit of the Equifax debacle is that it led to the ability to freeze and unfreeze your credit report for free. Before September 2018, freezing your credit cost $10 every time you used it. The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act made credit freezes free.
Freezing your credit is similar to the credit locking services that the credit bureaus offer. However, credit locks are products provided by credit bureaus that aren’t necessarily free though offer some benefits including insurance. Meanwhile, credit freezes are guaranteed free by law. When you freeze your credit, your credit reports are unavailable to certain third parties, potential identity thieves included. If you want to open a new credit account, you’ll need to temporarily unfreeze your credit while you apply.
Head to the credit bureau websites or download their mobile apps to set up your account and handle freezing and unfreezing your credit.
A good credit score could make or break a home purchase. If you’re approved, good credit could save you tens of thousands of dollars over time on high-value loans like a mortgage. Because your credit score is so important for your finances, you should never lose track of your credit.
With an active focus on your credit report and credit scores from the three credit reporting bureaus, you can build an excellent credit score that gets you access to the best borrowing products, including the best rewards credit cards and interest rates available. It may not happen overnight, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort to improve your credit.
Credit bureau frequently asked questions (FAQ)
Yes. While Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are the three major bureaus, there are other credit bureaus out there as well. Another important consumer credit agency is ChexSystems, a company that tracks negative histories with bank accounts. Dun & Bradstreet is a major credit agency that tracks information about businesses of all sizes.
The CFPB maintains a list of consumer reporting agencies that they update annually.
Normally, each credit bureau lets you view a free credit report annually, for a total of three free credit reports each year. You have to go to AnnualCreditReport.com to access these reports. You will have to pay for additional reports on top of these free reports. However, as a result of the pandemic, you can access a credit report from all three bureaus for each week until the end of 2023.
You can access extra credit reports in certain circumstances. If you are denied any credit or experience another adverse action, you can request a credit report from the bureau your creditor used to assess your credit. You are also entitled to credit reports from the major bureaus when you put a fraud alert on your credit.
It’s easy to confuse credit reporting agencies for credit rating agencies. Not only do they sound very similar, but there are also three major credit rating agencies: Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch. These credit rating agencies, dubbed “The Big Three,” rate the risk that a bond will default much like how a credit score rates the risk that a borrower will default.
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