Whether you like it or not, you have three big brothers watching your credit use: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. These three credit bureaus, or reporting agencies, gather information about your credit card use, mortgage, student loan, car payments and other credit history, sharing or selling it to potential lenders, employers and other entities. You allow this when you apply for credit and agree to the fine print contained in your agreements.
A credit bureau, or reporting agency, collects your credit history from creditors to create a repository of your history for potential lenders to determine if you’re a good credit risk. TransUnion, Experian and Equifax are the three main credit bureaus operating in the United States. These agencies also collect other information from public and private sources, including data on bankruptcies, liens, debt consolidation, government home-loan modification, judgments and collections. Lenders report your activity, such as late or timely payments, to credit agencies in exchange for getting access to credit reports. These services offer you the opportunity to subscribe to 24/7 access to your credit report, which is updated daily. They also sell access to your credit score, which is not free with your complementary annual report.
Credit bureaus create individual credit reports that include a list of your accounts, including credit cards, store charge accounts, car and student loans, mortgage and other loans and forms of credit. These reports show the date credit or a loan was issued, the current balance, payment history by month and whether you closed an account or the creditor closed it. You can receive a free copy of your credit report from each company once annually. Do so by visiting Transunion.com, Experian.com and Equifax.com and following the directions on each agency's website. If you want additional reports, each service offers you the chance to purchase a new report, regular updates and credit monitoring. You can also receive a copy of all three reports at once at the website Annualcreditreport.com.
In addition to providing factual information about your credit history, credit-reporting agencies issue you a credit score. Each bureau uses a different mathematical model to create your score, and your three scores will often differ. Your score affects whether you will qualify for a loan or credit, how much you will receive if you qualify and what interest rate you’ll pay. Your score depends on your credit use, debt-to-available-credit ratio and other factors. Negative items on your report are called derogatory items. A credit report provides reasons that might affect your credit score, including low or high balances, late payments, recently opened accounts or too few installment accounts. New credit cards ding your credit score, while older plastic adds points. If you are not paying anything on installment, such as a car or student loan, you’ll lose points, so think twice about paying off your ride early.
Challenging Report Information
If you find incorrect derogatory items on your report, you can challenge them and ask that they be removed. The credit agency will investigate and report its findings back to you. If the agency does not remove the item, you can take legal action or add a note to your credit report about the item that potential lenders can see. The process for challenging a derogatory item is available at each bureau’s website. You may purchase extra copies of your credit report directly from each agency's website if you want to see your report more than once each year.
TransUnion, Experian and Equifax also offer a variety of consumer and business financial services, including identity monitoring, customer management tools, marketing services and the ability to pull credit reports for tenants, consumers and other businesses. Each offers you the chance to purchase access to your credit score, once or on an ongoing basis. The instructions to do so are at their websites.
Financial writer Lynnette Khalfani-Cox notes at her website, Ask The Money Coach.com, that the three reporting bureaus have unique features that might make one better for your needs. Experian, for example, includes a "Status Details" feature on its credit report that lets you know the date when an account on your report will be removed. Equifax sorts your accounts under "Closed" and "Open" categories, rather than in alphabetical order like TransUnion or Equifax do, for quick identification. Khalfani-Cox writes that TransUnion provides the most thorough employment history for you, providing a link that lets you update or correct it. Its report also has color codes and symbols that let you quickly spot similar account notations.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.