Credit bureaus, also called credit reporting agencies (CRAs), are companies that collect and maintain consumer credit information.
The three major CRAs in the U.S. are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, and they are all publicly traded, for-profit companies. There are other smaller, specialized agencies, but when creditors and lenders check your credit, they’ll very likely do so with one of the major CRAs.
The major CRAs receive credit-related information from the companies and lenders that you do business with. Lenders regularly report whether you’re paying your bills on time, if you’ve ever defaulted entirely, and how much debt you owe to them. The credit bureaus also pull relevant public records, like tax liens or bankruptcy information, from state and local courts. This information is included in your credit report as well.
CRAs can sell your information to companies that want to prescreen you for their products and service, and to businesses that have a legally valid reason for reviewing it. For example, a company with whom you’ve applied for credit would have a valid reason to look at your credit history.
Equifax has been around since 1899, and they operate or have investments in 24 countries. They offer credit fraud protection and identity theft protection to consumers, as well as selling credit reports to businesses. Consumers can purchase credit monitoring services that include their Equifax credit scores.
In 2017, Equifax’s reputation was blemished when it was hacked and suffered a data breach that divulged the critical personal information of 147 million consumers. Equifax has since made a tool available on its site where you can check to see if you were affected, and the company also tried to make amends by offering a free credit monitoring service to consumers whose information was breached.
Experian got its start in London when businesspeople there began sharing information on customers who did not pay their bills. These businesspeople formed the Manchester Guardian Society in 1826, which later became an integral part of Experian and reached around the world. Experian employs over 16,500 people in 39 countries and was named one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Forbes in 2018.
Experian uses the FICO 8 credit score calculation system and offers a Credit Tracker by subscription. You’ll get your credit score as well as your credit report if you subscribe for $19.99 per month.
TransUnion started as a holding company for a tank car company in 1968, and then it branched out from there into credit reporting. By 1988, the company had full coverage and consumer information on every market-active adult in the U.S. Their database includes over 1 billion consumers in more than 30 countries.
If you’re worried that you’re a victim of identity theft or that you might be, you can place a freeze on your TransUnion credit report and TransUnion will take the extra step of notifying the other two CRAs that you’ve done so. You can also purchase a credit monitoring subscription with them for $24.95 per month.
Credit bureaus often have business relationships with the same banks, credit card issuers, and even other businesses that you might have accounts with, but they’re separate entities. Your account history will appear on one or all of your credit reports from these agencies because of their connections, but credit agencies don’t share your account information with each other. Credit freezes and fraud alerts are exceptions to this rule.9
Your creditors might report to all three of the major CRAs or just one or two of them, so the information contained on one credit report may be different from the others. When potential creditors and lenders check your credit, they might only pull one agency’s report because it’s usually less expensive for a business to check just one credit report.
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