We often hear about the importance of good credit and how bad credit can follow you around for years. But who generates your credit report? What’s listed on it? And who gets to look at it?
There are three nationwide credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- that handle the bulk of the credit reporting in the United States.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act regulates how these companies collect your financial information and with whom they can share it. It also declares that consumers have a right to know what’s on their credit report, to find out if their credit profile was used against them (such as to deny a loan) and to dispute inaccurate marks.
Regularly monitoring your credit reports and credit scores is important, since inaccurate items can influence whether you qualify for a loan or indicate you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Here’s what you need to know about credit bureaus and how they operate.
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What is a credit bureau?
Credit bureaus, also called credit reporting companies or consumer reporting agencies, compile and sell information about your payment and borrowing history, usually to lenders or other parties who want to know your level of creditworthiness.
How do credit bureaus work?
There are three nationwide credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
These agencies don’t make lending decisions. Instead, they provide lenders and creditors with details about your credit history and assign you a credit score based on what they know of your history.
When you apply for items like credit cards, bank or car loans or apartment leases, lenders typically request a credit report to assess your credit risk.
Because not every lender notifies every agency -- or any of them -- getting the full picture of your credit report can be tricky. Reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion may have different items on them, and your credit score may vary between the three bureaus.
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To make sure the records of the credit bureaus are complete and current, it’s important to review your credit reports with all three companies.
Why are there three credit bureaus?
When lending institutions first started monitoring consumers’ credit, the job was originally performed by local agencies.
Over time the process became automated, and local agencies were consolidated into the three major regional companies we have today.
At first, Equifax was responsible for states in the South and East, Experian for those in the West, and TransUnion for those in the Midwest.
While all three credit bureaus are now nationwide, not all businesses report items to all of them.
“This means that the information on your credit report can vary from agency to agency, resulting in different scores,” according to TransUnion.
What is on a credit report?
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, your credit report can include:
- The amount and balance of any loans.
- The credit limit and balance on any credit cards.
- The status of either of the above, including whether you’ve made payments on time and when your last payment occurred.
- Items sent to collection.
Who can see my credit report?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act limits access to your credit report to agencies that demonstrate a “permissible purpose,” or a legitimate reason for wanting to see your credit history. Examples include:
- Credit cards that you’ve applied for.
- Potential lenders.
- Existing creditors.
- Debt collection companies.
- Insurance companies.
- Rental companies and landlords.
- Internet, phone and utility companies.
- Certain government agencies.
Prospective employers can request a credit report, but only with your written consent.
Where do credit bureaus get their information?
Banks, credit card companies and other lenders routinely send information to the agencies. Credit bureaus can also access court judgments, liens, bankruptcies and other public records.
How do I get a copy of my credit report?
The three nationwide credit bureaus are each required to provide you with at least one free copy of your credit report a year. (You may qualify for more if you were the victim of identity theft or under other circumstances.)
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the credit bureaus announced that they would provide free credit reports weekly to all Americans for all of 2020. The policy was extended through 2021 and 2022 and is now scheduled to expire at the end of 2023.
You can request all three credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.
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Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article was assisted by an AI engine. This version has been substantially updated by a staff writer.
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