Most people have heard of Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. These three credit reporting agencies, also called "credit reporting bureaus" or "consumer reporting agencies," play a big role in consumers' ability to get mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and sometimes even renting an apartment or getting a job.
These agencies are for-profit companies that gather and sell information about a person's credit history.
You might hear about "credit reporting agencies," "credit bureaus," or "consumer reporting agencies." Those are three names for the same thing. Sometimes you will hear about "credit reports" or "consumer reports." Again, the same thing.
"Consumer reports" and "consumer reporting agencies" are the terms used in the federal law that protects consumers in connection with their credit reports, the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But most people refer to them as "credit reports" and "credit reporting agencies."
The three nationwide credit reporting agencies are:
If you have any form of credit, then it's almost certain that all three of these agencies have a credit report on file for you.
They get most of the information they collect about you from your creditors. Almost all creditors supply information about their accounts using a standard electronic reporting system. You might hear it referred to as "Metro 2." It has a number of "fields" (that is, boxes or blanks) in which the creditor may insert information about you and your credit.
The credit reporting agencies then turn around and sell the credit information they've collected from a variety of creditors and other sources to banks, mortgage lenders, credit unions, credit card companies, department stores, car dealers, debt collectors, insurance companies, landlords, and employers. These companies and individuals use the credit information to supplement applications for credit, insurance, housing, and employment.
Credit reporting agencies may also provide identifying information and credit reports to government agencies for their use in extending credit, reviewing the status of an account or attempting to collect a debt, granting a license or other benefit, or investigating international terrorism.
Regional and small credit reporting agencies, many of which get their information from one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies, also produce reports.
In addition, various nationwide specialty reporting agencies gather and report only particular types of information, such as bad check writing, rental, or medical histories. These smaller or specialty agencies might or might not have a report on you.
You can get a free credit report from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies annually. But you don't get your free reports by contacting any of these credit reporting agencies directly. Instead, you order reports from the Annual Credit Report Service at www.annualcreditreport.com.
However, you might need to contact the credit reporting agencies for other reasons. For example, you might want to pay for an additional credit report or you might need to dispute an item on your credit report. Or maybe you want to put a freeze on your file. You'll need to contact the credit reporting agency in those situations and a few others.
Also, you have to contact specialty credit reporting agencies directly to get their files on you.