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By Ana Reina
February 5, 2021
Magnifying glass over a paper with credit report wheel.
Jose Velez / Money

Credit reporting agencies (CRAs) — also known as credit bureaus or credit reporting companies — are publicly traded, for-profit corporations that compile and sell consumer credit history information.

What You Should Know

  • Credit reporting agencies issue credit reports based on consumers’ payment history. CRAs can report on the credit histories of either individuals or businesses.
  • The three major consumer credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Experian and Dun & Bradstreet, on the other hand, offer data on commercial credit.
  • Credit bureaus maintain and keep updated records of credit data, provide credit reports, calculate credit scores based on this information, and partner with credit providers for marketing purposes.
  • A credit reporting agency can sell your credit history information to companies such as creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses with which you’ve applied for credit, coverage or employment.

The Big Three Credit Reporting Agencies

There are three main credit rating agencies in the United States: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

Although credit reporting agencies obtain information from many of the same lenders and credit card companies, they are not affiliated.

CRAs don’t share your account information amongst each other, but your account history will show on one or all the reports because of their affiliations. The only exceptions to this are credit freezes and fraud alerts.

The information on one credit report may differ from that on other reports. That is because creditors choose which bureaus they will report to. Some lenders only report to one or two of the three bureaus, while others may not report to any.

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Experian

Experian is the largest of the three credit bureaus. The company offers consumers a free copy of their credit report, credit score, credit monitoring, and a new feature — Experian Boost™.

Experian Boost allows consumers to build a credit history by taking into account on-time utility and service streaming payments, such as Netflix and phone bills.

Equifax

Unlike Experian and TransUnion, Equifax sells consumer credit reports to businesses as well as individuals. It also offers credit monitoring and identity theft protection plans that include credit file monitoring, credit scores, and credit reports from the three bureaus.

After a data breach in 2017 that compromised the credit information of more than 147 million consumers, Experian made free credit monitoring services available to those affected.

TransUnion

TransUnion offers credit scores and reports through a membership model that includes unlimited score and report access, CreditCompass™, and Credit Lock Plus, which shields your TransUnion and Equifax reports from identity theft.

The Three Major Credit Reporting Agencies

These national bureaus collect data on your credit history and repayment which may include:
• Original loan amounts
• Credit limit on cards
• Loan balances
• Account payment status
• Items in collections
• Public records, including bankruptcies and judgments
This is compiled on a credit report and sold to other businesses looking into your credit.

Credit Reports and Credit Scores

Credit reports are detailed accounts of your credit history. On the other hand, a credit score is a three-digit number that tells lenders how much risk they would take on by lending to you.

The information in your credit reports determines your credit scores, but your credit reports do not contain your credit scores.

Credit Reports

Credit reporting agencies maintain credit reports for every individual. Making payments on your mortgage or car loan adds to your credit history.

Many lenders will send monthly reports on your credit history and account balances to the three major credit reporting agencies.

Your credit report should accurately reflect the status of your credit accounts, including the amounts you’ve paid off and the remaining balance on existing accounts.

Negative marks will also show in your credit report, such as any late payments or accounts in collections.

Usually, adverse items on a credit report will remain there for seven years and then fall off your report, but bankruptcy can remain on your credit report for ten years.

When you apply for credit, lenders will gauge your creditworthiness by requesting your credit report and credit scores from one or more of the three credit reporting bureaus and ensuring you meet their credit score requirements.

Credit Scores

Again, credit scores are based on the data available on your credit files. Your credit score will be a number typically between 300 and 850. The higher your score, the more creditworthy banks, and lenders consider you to be.

If you have a good to excellent credit score (670-850), lenders will offer you lower interest rates on loans or credit. Having a lower interest rate will mean paying less overall for your loan.

The most prominent credit scoring models that source their data from credit reporting bureaus are the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) and VantageScore.

You may purchase your credit score directly from the credit reporting agencies. However, some credit card issuers give you access to your credit score when you’re approved for a credit card.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulates credit reporting agencies. This federal law limits how consumer credit information is secured, how long it’s saved, and how it is used and shared with others.

The FCRA also grants consumers the right to free access to their credit reports.

CRAs are also regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to guarantee the protection of sensitive consumer information.

How to view your credit report

By law, you have the right to check your credit reports annually. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bureaus are allowing consumers to check their reports weekly through April 2021.

Go to annualcreditreport.com to request your copies from each agency at no cost.

How to Dispute Errors on Your Credit Report

It’s recommended that you check your credit reports for mistakes, which can happen. If you find inaccurate information on a report, contact the credit reporting agency directly to dispute it.

An FTC study found that “one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their three credit reports.”

How to Dispute Errors on Your Credit Report
Option 1 Option 2 You’ll need:
Make a claim directly with the credit reporting agency by mail, phone, or online. Dispute the information with the company that submitted the error (could be your bank, landlord, credit card company, or debt collector). • Your identifying information
• The consumer report or ID number
• Your account number
• The company’s name and address
• Name of the credit report (for creditors)
• Dates of disputed items
• Explanation of the inaccuracy
• Company that submitted the information (for CRAs)
• Supporting documents
Information sourced from CFPB.

If you reach out to the credit reporting agency in writing, follow this CFPB sample letter.

If you choose to contact the creditor or company who submitted the incorrect information directly, follow this sample letter.

Remember to keep evidence of all communications.

How to Report Fraud

Experts recommend frequently checking your credit report in case of any significant changes that may indicate identity theft.

If you see a new line of credit opened that wasn’t yours, you may need to contact the credit bureaus to let them know you’d like to place a fraud alert or a credit freeze.

Credit freezes temporarily block access to your credit report. These are usually free and can be lifted at any time. Fraud alerts are very similar to credit freezes, but they stay in place for one year.

Fraud or errors on your credit report can lower your credit score if you don’t address them immediately.

The safe move is to freeze your credit accounts if you have reason to believe you have been a victim of identity theft.

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FAQs About Credit Reporting Agencies

What are the four parts of a credit report?

The four sections included in your credit report are the following:

  • Personal information, including your name, date of birth, Social Security number, current, past addresses, phone numbers, and current and past employment information.
  • Credit accounts
  • Public records, including bankruptcies, tax liens, and judgments.
  • Recent credit inquiries, including the names of companies that have asked to view your credit and the date.

What shows up on your credit report?

The information that shows up on your credit report summarizes how you have handled your credit accounts.

That includes the types of accounts under your name, your payment history, identifying information, information on any inquiries into your credit, bankruptcies, and any accounts in collections.

Does your credit report show all debt?

Since creditors are not required by law to report their account information to any of the credit bureaus, your credit report may not contain a complete list of all the debt you owe.

Similarly, creditors might only choose to report to one or two of the credit bureaus. For a more comprehensive list of your debt, check all three of your free credit reports.

What is the maximum amount of time a negative item can stay on your credit report?

Negative marks such as delinquencies stay on your credit report for seven years, although some items such as bankruptcies remain on your report for ten years.

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