When you apply for a loan or credit card, the lender pulls your credit information from one or all of the three major credit reporting agencies in the United States; TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. These agencies (commonly referred to as bureaus) collect data from a variety of sources using your personal data and mathematically assign you a credit score.
How Credit Worked Before the Bureaus
Before the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was passed in 1970, lenders had no way to make an informed decision about a person’s creditworthiness. At the time, it was common for small investigative companies to look into your background to determine if you deserve credit.
Since there was not yet a central collection system for a person’s data, these investigators dug up every fact they could find including testimonials from people and even data on their religion, ethnicity, and age. Lenders would use this information to make decisions on approval, credit limit, and interest rate.
As time went on, the importance of these investigative companies became apparent. As these companies grew and merged, the three major bureaus emerged and remain in force today.
History of the 3 Major Credit Bureaus
In the United States, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian are the three credit bureaus that will affect your financial life the most. While all three offer subscription plans for monitoring your credit and credit dispute services, each has different options to consider and each computes your credit score differently.
It is one of the largest of three bureaus and one of the two largest in the world. In addition to credit reports, Equifax offers consumers credit monitoring on a monthly subscription basis, much like the other credit bureaus. Equifax also offers a family plan for credit monitoring with up to four children included. In addition, you can opt for credit freezing or fraud alert through the online tools included in the service.
Equifax, like TransUnion and Experian, has its own computing model for calculating your credit score. The company purports to provide your report from all the agencies when you use their service. However, what they are actually doing is using data collected from the other two bureaus in their calculation model. This means your credit score can still be different from the other two bureaus.
Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374-0256
(888) 298-0045 (for customer care) or
(800) 349-9960 (for security freezes)
In addition to the typical credit monitoring subscriptions available, their monitoring services have the added benefits of sex offenders, court records, and black-market identity monitoring sections, as well as a debt analysis feature. The instant alerts feature allows instant notification via email if someone is using your information to apply for credit or a loan.
TransUnion offers TrueIdentity to protect you from identity theft and provide you with insurance in the event theft does occur. The bureau also has a credit lock feature comparable to the other bureaus with the drawback of only locking your TransUnion credit file, not all credit files.
TransUnion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016-2000
Like the other agencies, Experian offers subscribers their monthly FICO score. Experian is the only bureau to offer this as well as providing you a monthly report on your score from the other two bureaus as well as their breakdown of your credit. Essentially, Experian can give you their credit report as well as the other two bureaus’ reports for one monthly fee rather than subscribing to all three companies.
Experian offers an online education center, a mobile app, various levels of identity theft protection, and more, including a once-off credit report that gives you your credit report from all three bureaus for one fee without subscribing to any other products. This bureau’s value-added benefits are worth exploring before deciding on which bureau to utilize.
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013
(888) 397-3742 (for disputes)
How Your Information is Compiled into a Credit Report
If you’ve ever requested copies of your credit reports, you know that there is quite a bit of information on there. Depending on how long your credit history is, your report can be over a dozen pages long. Your report contains a history of your credit accounts, employment data, collections, and much more.
Every month, financial institutions and other creditors send your information to one or more of the credit bureaus. This information may include all the payments you have made, missed payments, how many days late the payments were, and your balance.
These financial institutions are not required to report to any bureau but the majority do participate. Other reporting companies include utilities, medical establishments, student loans, and private creditors.
In addition to the data that is sent to them, the bureaus pull public information such as collections, repossessions, evictions, liens, and more from the court system. Advances in technology have made it possible for data that is considered public to be accessed instantaneously. The bureaus can update their reports monthly almost seamlessly.
Why Your Credit Score May Vary from Bureau to Bureau
If you find it odd that you get a different credit score from different lenders or agencies, you are not alone. Most people don’t realize that each agency computes a credit score and that the three may differ, sometimes greatly. There are several reasons for this:
1. Businesses Report Your Information to Different Bureaus
Businesses that report to one credit bureau may not always report to all three. They are not required to report at all and some choose to only report to one. This can make your credit report better or worse for the bureaus these businesses use.
2. Bureaus Update Their Data at Different Times
Each bureau sets its schedule for providing monthly updates. Since these dates are not the same across the board, one bureau may have more updated information than the other. This can cause the score to differ among the companies depending on the date.
3. Disputes May Not Appear on All Credit Reports
Disputes with one bureau won’t show up on all three of your credit reports. This can cause your score with the disputed bureau to be slightly lower than the other bureaus.
How Credit Bureaus Make Money
The three credit bureaus are for-profit companies that assimilate data from various places, as explained earlier. The bureaus calculate your credit score and make it available to lenders and other approved entities. Like other for-profit businesses, they make money by providing information and a variety of different services.
Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian all make their profits in the same way; selling your information and settling credit disputes. Here are a few examples of how they make money:
1. Lenders Buy Your Credit Report to Determine Approval
Lenders, insurance companies, and other companies that have been listed as allowable agencies purchase your credit report to determine credit approval or the risk they take in doing business with you. This does not mean any business can buy your report. The business must be on the approved list.
2. Lenders and Insurance Marketers Buy Your Data to Sell to You
Those pre-approved loans and insurance offers you receive in the mail are not an accident. The FCRA allows the bureaus to sell your information to the insurance companies and lenders to send offers of insurance or loans to you. However, you have the right to opt-out of having your information sold to companies. You can contact each bureau or go to OptOutPrescreen.com and add your name to the list.
3. You Can Purchase Services from the Bureaus
Yes, you are also a profit source for the bureaus. The FCRA provides you the right to a free credit report from each bureau annually. A trusted website to request all three free reports from is AnnualCreditReport.com. There are other reasons you can get your credit report for free, such as when you are denied credit.
The bureaus also offer paid credit monitoring services to consumers. You pay them a monthly fee and receive credit alerts, identity theft protection insurance, monthly credit updates, and more depending on the level of service you purchase.
4. Bureaus Charge Lenders for Credit Disputes
Lastly, credit disputes are a little-known profit center for the credit bureaus. If you find an error on your report and file a dispute with the credit bureau, the bureau investigates the error. Since they are not the initial collector handling the information, the company that provides it to them is charged a fee for making the error.
This has a two-fold effect. One, it provides additional profit for the bureau, and two, it gives the lender or institution collecting your information added incentive to make sure the data is input accurately.
Credit Reporting and Your Rights as a Consumer
Credit reporting agencies are private companies that handle your sensitive and personal data that is used by lenders to make major decisions affecting you and your financial health.
As previously mentioned, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was passed in 1970 and ensures that you have reasonable rights and protections regarding your personal information. It’s important to understand what you’re rights are when it comes to credit reporting.
Here is a brief overview of what some of your rights are:
- The FCRA makes it possible for you to request your credit report but restricts access to the general public. In almost all cases you must give written consent for a company to request your credit report.
- Mistakes happen. However, when the mistake is on your credit report you need to be able to correct it before it adversely affects your financial health. The FCRA gives you the right to have the information corrected or removed.
- If you are denied credit, the FCRA gives you the right to see the credit report used in the approval process.
- You have the right to be removed from prescreened mailing lists for insurance and credit cards.
- The data on your credit report that is used by lenders must be your current information. The bureaus may not send outdated information – typically 7 years is the cutoff time for information to be retained on your credit report.
- The FCRA also provides a security layer that assists in preventing identity theft. You have the right to prevent anyone from accessing your credit report without a security code provided by you. This is a security lock or freeze and no one accesses your credit report unless you remove the freeze or provide them an access code.
Like the three credit bureaus, the FCRA was essential in order to level the playing field and give everyone an equal opportunity. Before its inception, characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, and even family lineage were taken into account when evaluating a person’s credit trustworthiness.
It’s valuable to know about the three credit reporting agencies that are responsible for a huge part of your financial wellbeing. Maintaining a healthy credit score across all three bureaus is essential if you ever plan on buying a home, taking out a loan, buying a vehicle, or making other important life purchases.
It’s always a good idea to monitor your credit report from each bureau on an annual basis. Before you apply for any type of credit, review your credit reports for any errors and make sure you are aware of your credit scores. Taking these extra steps can ensure that you get the best possible interest rates and make an informed financial decision.