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 significant role in consumers' ability to get mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and sometimes even rent an apartment or get a job.
These agencies are for-profit companies that gather and sell information about a person's credit history. But you don't necessarily have to pay to get your credit reports. In many circumstances, you can get a full file disclosure from each credit bureau.
You might hear about "credit reporting agencies," "credit bureaus," or "consumer reporting agencies." Those are three names for the same thing. Sometimes, you'll 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 (FCRA). But most people call them "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 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 account information using a standard electronic reporting system.
You might hear it referred to as "Metro 2." It has many "fields" (boxes or blanks) where the creditor may insert information about you and your credit.
The credit reporting agencies then sell the credit information collected from various 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:
Under the FCRA, you can get a free credit report from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies every 12 months (15 U.S.C.A. § 1681j). However, the agencies provide free weekly reports online, a service they started during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You don't get free reports by contacting the 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 (see below for contact information) 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 you might want to put a freeze on your credit 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.
You'll probably never need to buy a copy because you can get copies of your credit reports for free. But if you need another copy, you can pay a fee to get a credit report from one of the nationwide credit reporting agencies.
The agencies' websites sometimes hide the charge for ordering one credit report and advertise a low-cost or a free copy with a 30-day or longer trial membership for one of their services, such as credit monitoring. If you don't want the service, be sure to cancel it within the cancellation period to avoid the high monthly fees.
To order additional credit reports after you've received your free annual report from the Annual Credit Report service, you must contact the credit reporting agency directly. You can do so:
You will have to provide some personal information so the credit reporting agency can identify you.
Find out what people, businesses, and entities can order your credit report in Who Can Look at Your Credit Report.
If you dispute an item in your credit report, but the credit reporting agency refuses to correct it, read If the Credit Reporting Agency Does Not Correct Your Report: What to Do.
To find out the steps you'll need to take to clean up your credit report, read Steps to Cleaning Up Your Credit Report.
If you find errors, outdated information, or missing information on your credit reports, the FCRA gives you the right to dispute those items with the credit reporting agency that made the report. If the credit reporting agency doesn't fix the error or errors, consider talking to an attorney who can help you enforce your rights.
You have the right to sue an agency that violates your rights under the FCRA, including continuing to report incorrect information.