What you need to know about the 3 main credit bureaus

Young woman on laptop, learning about the three credit bureausImage: Young woman on laptop, learning about the three credit bureaus

In a Nutshell

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the three main consumer credit bureaus. They collect and store information about you that they use to generate your credit reports, which are used as the basis of your credit scores.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

The three major consumer credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

A credit bureau is a company that gathers and stores various types of information about you and your financial accounts and history. It draws on this information to create your credit reports, which in turn form the basis for your credit scores.

The three major credit bureaus are often grouped together. But they’re separate companies that compete for the business of creditors, who may use the credit reports and scores from these bureaus to help them make lending decisions. And they’re not the only three bureaus out there.

Keep reading to learn about the data the credit bureaus collect, how credit bureaus get the information they use to create your reports and scores, and how you can contact them if you think something’s wrong.

What data do the credit bureaus include in your credit reports?

Think of a credit report as a snapshot of your history as a borrower. To build your credit reports, each of the different credit bureaus collects a few key pieces of information.

  • Credit account information — The types of accounts you have (credit card, student loan, auto loan, mortgage, etc.), the open dates for those accounts, your credit limit, account balances and payment history.
  • Hard and soft inquiries — These types of inquiries are also recorded on your credit reports. Generally, hard inquiries happen when you allow an individual, company or credit issuer to check your credit reports, which can temporarily drop your credit scores. Soft inquires happen when you do things like check your credit reports, which won’t hurt your credit. Read more about the difference between hard and soft inquiries.
  • Bankruptcy information — When you filed for bankruptcy and what chapter.
  • Collection accounts — Any accounts with past-due payments that have been passed along to a collections agency.

Your credit reports also include personal information like your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth.

How are your credit reports used?

The information in your credit reports is used to calculate your credit scores. Credit-scoring models can weigh the same information from the same credit report differently. But the main scoring models, FICO and VantageScore, look at information in five key areas to determine your scores: payment history, credit usage, credit history, credit mix and recent credit.

Your credit reports can also be used by creditors, such as credit card issuers, when they’re considering whether they’ll open a line of credit for you. The credit bureau may also use the information on your reports to calculate a credit score for you.

How do credit bureaus get your information?

The information that the bureaus collect comes from a variety of sources.

Information reported to the bureaus by creditors — Creditors, such as banks and credit card issuers, may report information about their accounts and customers to the credit bureaus. In this context, the creditors are known as “data furnishers.”

Information that’s collected or bought by the bureaus — For some types of information, the credit bureaus buy the data. For example, a consumer credit bureau might buy public records information from LexisNexis, another credit bureau, and use this information when generating your credit report. Examples of information that a credit bureau may buy include government tax liens or bankruptcy records.

Information that gets shared among the bureaus — Although they are competitors, sometimes the credit bureaus must share information with one another. For example: When you place an initial fraud alert with one of the bureaus, it’s required to forward the alert to the other two.

Learn more about protecting yourself from identity theft.

Why are your credit reports and scores different from bureau to bureau?

When checking on your credit, you may notice that your credit scores can vary by bureau. One reason for this variation could be the potential differences in the data that make up each report. Creditors aren’t required to report information to the credit bureaus. And while many creditors do choose to report, some may send your account info to only one or two of the main bureaus instead of all three, leading to different details being logged from bureau to bureau.

So because a credit score is derived from the details in a single credit report, your credit scores could be significantly different depending on which bureau’s report is being used as a source of information.

You may also notice that your FICO credit score is different from your VantageScore credit score — even if the same report from the same bureau is being used. This is because they are two independent scoring models that each take slightly different approaches in evaluating your credit reports to generate your scores.

How to dispute inaccurate information on your reports

While it’s normal to see different credit scores for different bureaus, we recommend periodically checking your credit reports for errors.

As a consumer, you can request your free credit reports from the bureaus once a year at annualcreditreport.com. You can also sign up for Credit Karma for free to see your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports and VantageScore 3.0 credit scores.

You also have the right to dispute inaccurate information in your reports and with data furnishers. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the consumer reporting company and the company that furnished the information to the credit bureau must conduct a free investigation to verify the information and correct a mistake, if they find one.

Normally, Credit Karma members can dispute information in their TransUnion credit reports with Credit Karma’s Direct Dispute™ tool.

You may also be able to dispute information over the phone using the number on your credit report or looking up the most recent number on the credit bureau’s website. You might prefer mail and electronic disputes though, because you’ll have a paper trail.

To dispute information with another credit bureau, visit its website or use the CFPB list to find its contact information. You may need to submit your dispute by mail or over the phone.

Other important credit bureaus

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion may be the big three, but there are actually many consumer credit bureaus. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a list of dozens of consumer credit bureaus organized by the type of information they organize and provide.

Check out the CFPB’s list to find the website, phone number and address for each of the credit bureaus, as well as brief descriptions of what they do and whether they provide a free report to consumers. Many do, but sometimes you need to call or mail in your request.

Here are three other credit bureaus you may want to know about.

  • ChexSystems — ChexSystems collects and reports information on closed checking and savings accounts.
  • National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange — The NCTUE collects and shares information for the telecommunications, pay TV and utility industries.
  • C.L.U.E. — Owned and operated by LexisNexis, Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange collects insurance-related information and creates consumer auto and personal property reports. An insurance company could use these when setting your insurance premiums.

What’s next?

The three main credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, draw on a wide variety of sources to build your credit reports. Credit-scoring models like FICO and VantageScore use these reports to calculate your credit scores. Your credit scores can vary by credit bureau, but this is normal.

Check your credit reports often for errors. As a Credit Karma member, you can access your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports and VantageScore 3.0 credit scores any time for free, or you can request a free copy of your credit reports on annualcreditreport.com once a year.

If you find an error, contact the credit bureau whose report has the incorrect information and file a dispute. Under law, the credit bureaus must investigate and correct a mistake if they find one.

About the author: Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer and has written for American Express, Discover and Nova Credit. In addition to being a contributing writer at Credit Karma, you can find his work on Business Insider, Cheapi… Read more.