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What Are the 3 Credit Bureaus? Here's What You Need to Know

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Not long ago, managing your personal finances involved little more than a budget and checkbook. These days, you also need to stay on top of your credit reports and credit scores.

Yes, that's reports, plural -- as in, more than one. In fact, you have three main credit reports, one each from the three major credit bureaus. You'll need to check all three of them regularly to ensure your credit is in good shape.

If this information is coming as a surprise, you're not alone. The sorry state of personal finance and credit education in the U.S. means thousands of people every day google things like "What are the 3 credit bureaus?" and "How do I check my 3 credit reports?"

Luckily, we're here with the answers. Let's get started.

What are the three consumer credit bureaus?

In general, there are two main types of credit bureaus (also called credit reporting agencies): consumer and business. As you might guess, consumer credit bureaus collect credit data on individual consumers. Business credit bureaus collect credit data on small businesses.

In the consumer world, the three major credit bureaus are:

  • Equifax
  • Experian
  • TransUnion

Credit bureaus are independent businesses. While they're regulated by the government, they aren't owned or operated by any government agency.

Equifax

Equifax was established in 1899 as the Retail Credit Company. It changed its name to Equifax in 1975, shortly after the establishment of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The company was originally founded in Atlanta, Georgia, where it still maintains its corporate headquarters.

For many years, Equifax focused mainly on selling data to insurance companies. This was used to evaluate applicants for new insurance policies. Over time, the company migrated more into consumer credit. Today, Equifax is one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the U.S. and Canada. It also operates, or has investments in, two dozen countries around the world.

In addition to credit reporting, Equifax offers several consumer products. This includes credit monitoring and identity theft insurance. It also provides business services like data analytics and compliance management.

Experian

Experian can trace its roots back to the mid-1900s and the Credit Data Corporation. The modern Experian is much younger. Through a series of sales and spin-offs, it was formally established as Experian in the 1990s.

Although it's known as one of the "Big 3" reporting agencies in the U.S., Experian is a global company. Its primary headquarters are located in Dublin, Ireland. In the U.S., Experian's main offices can be found in Costa Mesa, California.

Experian has its fingers in many data analysis sectors, including consumer and business credit reporting. It also deals in identity services, such as ID theft protection and ID verification. On the corporate scale, Experian offers services like advanced data modeling, fraud management, and regulatory compliance.

TransUnion

TransUnion was originally founded as a holding company in the 1960s. It officially entered the credit game the next year with the purchase of the Credit Bureau of Cook County. TransUnion became a publicly traded company in 2005.

Although TransUnion's corporate headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois, it is a global company. It operates in more than 30 countries worldwide, including both the U.S. and Canada.

TransUnion has a robust consumer credit reporting business, but that's the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The company also offers consumer reporting services, fraud management, and advanced analytics for businesses large and small. TransUnion even has a Public Services division that provides data and analysis for government agencies and offices.

Are there other credit bureaus?

Although the big three are arguably the most important, there are a few lesser-known credit bureaus in the U.S. There are also a number of consumer reporting agencies that track niche data like utility payments and rental history.

Here are some common agencies you may come across:

  • Experian RentBureau: Rental payment data
  • ChexSystems: Checking and savings account data
  • LexisNexis CLUE (Auto and Personal divisions): Insurance and claims data
  • Innovis: ID verification and credit history data
  • National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange: Utilities data
  • Certegy: Check history (paper checks)

In most cases, you won't deal directly with these agencies. But if you've ever been turned down for a bank account or utility hookup, data from one of these bureaus may have been involved in the decision.

Do all of your credit reports have the same information?

The information collected by credit bureaus comes from two main sources:

  • Public records
  • Financial institutions

Public records data is collected or purchased by the bureaus. The credit data is reported to the bureaus by the banks, lenders, and other financial institutions. In other words, the financial institutions choose where and when to make reports.

Since institutions self-report, there can be a lot of variability. For instance, a bank or lender may report your credit data to one agency, but not the other two. Or it may update your information at different times or frequencies depending on the credit bureau.

Additionally, credit bureaus aren't required to share most information. If a lender reports an account to one credit bureau, but not the others, that bureau doesn't have to share the account data. The only time bureaus are obligated to share data is if you submit a fraud or identity theft alert.

All this means your credit reports could look different from each other. That's why it's important to check not just one, but all three of your reports (see below).

The most common discrepancy is in hard credit inquiries. Basically, when you apply for a credit card or loan, the issuer or lender will run a hard credit check. Most often, they'll only check one credit report. So, that hard inquiry would show up on one credit report -- with one credit bureau -- but not the other two.

How to check all three of your credit reports

The Fair Credit Reporting Act made it so you're entitled to at least one free credit report from each bureau every year. Requesting a copy of your own credit report will not hurt your credit score in any way. Remember, regularly reviewing your credit report and fixing errors can significantly improve your credit score. A good or excellent credit score is the best way to get approved for loans you want at the best interest rates available.

The simplest way to get your free reports is by using the official site: AnnualCreditReport.com. This site was created by the three major bureaus. You can get all three reports at one time. Your free annual credit report won't include your credit scores.

Alternatively, each credit bureau offers some sort of credit report access, usually as a part of a credit monitoring service. These services may require you to sign up for an account and/or pay a separate service fee.

How to dispute a credit report error with each bureau

It's important to file a dispute immediately if you find an error or fraudulent account on your credit reports. You can do this easily online with each bureau, or by phone or mail if you prefer. Filing a dispute is absolutely free.

You may need to include appropriate supporting documents when you file. This may consist of documents like bank statements, credit account statements, or other proof of your dispute.

Reporting an error with Equifax

File a dispute online: Equifax Credit Disputes

File a dispute by phone: (866) 349-5191

File a dispute by mail:
Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374-0256

Reporting an error with Experian

File a dispute online: Experian Credit Disputes

File a dispute by phone: Contact listed on your Experian credit report

File a dispute by mail:
Experian
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013

Reporting an error with TransUnion

File a dispute online: TransUnion Credit Disputes

File a dispute by phone: (833) 395-6941

File a dispute by mail:
TransUnion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016-2000

FAQs

  • Credit scores are based on the data in your credit reports. Your credit reports are generated based on data collected by the credit bureaus, so you have a different credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Information can vary between bureaus, giving you different credit scores.

  • Much of the information collected by credit bureaus is the same. Each of the three major bureaus collects general public records information, as well as credit data.

    However, financial institutions can choose how and when to report your credit data. They may not always report to all three major bureaus at the same time -- or at all. As a result, the information in your credit reports can vary from bureau to bureau.

  • There is no single credit bureau that is used more than the others. All three major U.S. credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- are used by most banks and lenders. Which bureau is used for what and when can vary based on everything from the specific product to your location.

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