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A history of the three credit bureaus

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You’ve likely heard about credit scores, credit reports and credit bureaus. All these things are relevant to your financial health, and if you understand them, you can better take care of your credit overall.  Here we’re going to focus on the United States’ three primary credit bureaus, which monitor and report on consumer credit data.

Keep reading to find out about the history of the three credit bureaus and what they do today. 

What is a credit bureau?

A credit bureau, also known as a consumer credit reporting agency, collects and reports consumer data. The company collects information from financial institutions, banks, collection agencies and creditors to compile a comprehensive report on each individual’s credit behaviors. The three main credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. 

How do the credit bureaus work?

Each credit bureau collects data from various sources, such as lenders, financial institutions, collection agencies and public records. Using all the information they have, each credit bureau produces a report that reflects a consumer’s typical patterns with credit. A consumer can then get a score based on one of these reports that is intended to show how responsible they are with credit. 

Credit bureaus must operate under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulations, which protect consumers from inaccurate reporting. Under the FCRA, each individual has the right to request one free credit report from each credit bureau annually. Note that a credit report and a credit score are not the same thing. Your credit report typically doesn’t include your credit score, and you may have to pay to access your score. 

It’s important to understand that credit bureaus only deal with credit. They don’t consider factors such as your assets or the amount of money in your savings or investment accounts. Additionally, the credit bureaus don’t make lending decisions. Instead, they provide data to lenders to help them in the decision-making process. 

The main three credit bureaus

The United States has three nationwide credit bureaus, often referred to as “the Big Three.” 

Equifax

Equifax was founded in 1899 under the name The Retail Credit Company. The company has its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and operates internationally across North America, South America, Europe and Asia. 

Cator and Guy Woolford established The Retail Credit Company and saw almost instant success. The company was incorporated in 1913 and by 1920 had 37 offices in both the United States and Canada. The two brothers initially started the company by walking around to merchants in their area and making notes on individual consumers.

They had a simple ranking system—people were marked as prompt, slow or requiring more cash. The Woolford brothers gathered their findings into “The Merchant Report,” which was sold for $25 a copy. Additionally, the brothers began selling individual consumer reports. 

Over the years, the brothers expanded the company to include auto and life insurance. The company continued to see massive growth and rebranded as Equifax in 1976.  

Today, Equifax still focuses on providing credit reports to consumers and businesses but also offers a wide variety of products and services, including marketing services, fraud services and risk management.

How to get your report

Every consumer is legally entitled to one free Equifax report every 12 months. You can request your free credit report here

If you need more than one credit report per year, you can sign up for Equifax Complete Premier. Equifax Premier costs $19.95 per month and gives you access to your credit report, your credit score and credit monitoring services. 

Known security issues

In September 2017, Equifax announced it had suffered a security breach. The actual breach occurred in March 2017 and was due to several internal security lapses. It’s estimated the breach impacted as many as 147 million people. The company had to settle with the Federal Trade Commission and pay up to $425 million to aid people affected by the breach. 

Contact information

Website: https://www.equifax.com/personal/ 

Address: 1550 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309 

Phone Number: (888) 202-4025

Experian

Experian’s founders were business partners Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge. In 1961, Simon Ramo was lecturing on how he saw the future being cashless. Not everyone was on board with Ramo’s vision, but Wooldridge believed Ramo was onto something. They took their company, TRW, into the credit reporting industry in 1968 by acquiring a company called Credit Data. 

As TRW started to grow in the United States, a similar company called GUS was gaining popularity in the UK. In 1995, TRW put its business up for sale and GUS made an offer. Once GUS bought the company in 1996, it rebranded as Experian. Eventually, the entire company would operate globally under Experian to garner broader brand awareness. 

Experian operates internationally and has headquarters in Ireland, the UK and California. Along with credit reporting services, the company offers complementary products and services, such as fingerprinting, marketing and analytics. 

How to get your report

Experian has to offer each consumer a free copy of their credit report every 12 months. You can access your free report here

You can also pay a one-time fee of $39.99 for your credit report and FICO scores from all three credit bureaus. 

Known security issues

In 2020, Experian had a data breach that impacted up to 24 million South African consumers and 800,000 businesses. No financial information was leaked in the breach, but it did expose millions of consumers to phishing attacks. 

In February 2021, Experian announced it was investigating the possibility that it was involved in a data breach with its Brazilian customers. 

Contact information

Website: https://www.experian.com/ 

Address: Newenham House, Malahide Rd, Priorswood, Coolock, Co. Dublin, Ireland 

Phone Number: (888) 397-3742

TransUnion

A railcar leasing company called the Union Tank Car Company created TransUnion in 1968 as its parent holding company. One year later, the business chose to acquire the Credit Bureau of Cook County (CBCC). CBCC manually managed 3.6 million consumer files in 400 seven-drawer cabinets.

TransUnion saw that this system needed updating and became the first company in the credit bureau industry to turn from paper to automated tape-to-disc transfer.

By 1988, TransUnion was operating across the nation. Over the next few decades, the organization focused on innovation and expansion. TransUnion went on to offer business-to-business services and analytics. In 2002, the business acquired TrueCredit.com and entered the direct-to-consumer market, giving consumers access to services online. 

TransUnion today offers services in addition to credit reporting, such as debt recovery services, digital marketing, global fraud solutions and portfolio management. 

How to get your report

Consumers can get their free annual consumer report from TransUnion here

If you want more frequent data, you can sign up for TransUnion credit monitoring services. For a monthly fee of $24.95 plus tax, you can get access to your TransUnion report, your credit score and recommendations on how to improve your credit. 

Known security issues

In 2017, both Equifax and TransUnion experienced a malicious third-party script on their websites. This script was serving up adware pretending to be a Flash Player installer and redirecting visitors off the site. Both companies worked quickly to remove the script from their sites. 

In 2019, TransUnion had a data breach that impacted up to 37,000 Canadian consumers. A fraudulent attacker accessed consumer profiles with a business customer’s login credentials. 

Contact information

Website: https://www.transunion.com/ 

Address: 555 W Adams St, Chicago, IL 60661 

Phone Number: (833) 395-6938

What other services do credit bureaus offer?

Credit bureaus offer a lot of additional services that complement credit reporting services. Credit reports don’t typically include credit scores, but individuals and businesses can request or pay for access to consumer credit scores. 

Consumers can also pay for services to help with their credit. This includes:

  • Credit monitoring so someone is alerted when changes are made to their credit report or credit score
  • Credit counseling to educate individuals on how to improve their score 

Because credit bureaus collect so much data, they naturally have a lot of information that can be useful to businesses. As a result, many credit bureaus now offer marketing, data analytics and research services based on decades of consumer data. 

Why you should check all three credit reports

It’s very common to check your credit score with all three credit bureaus and get slightly different numbers. While all three bureaus usually collect data from the same sources, there can be gaps from one bureau to the next.

For example, if you missed several payments on your vehicle loan, the lender may have reported you to Equifax and Experian but forgotten to report you to TransUnion. In this situation, your score would be higher with TransUnion. 

Conversely, one credit bureau could make a mistake. They could add incorrect information to your consumer account from someone who has a similar name to you. For this reason, you want to check your credit with all three bureaus. When you apply for a loan, you don’t know which credit bureau your lender reaches out to for your file.

Generally speaking, your credit scores and credit reports should be relatively similar across all three credit bureaus. If one is incredibly different, it could be a sign that report has incorrect information in it.  Your credit report is a good indicator of your financial health. Make sure you check your report across all three credit bureaus annually.

If you’re unhappy with your credit report or credit score, you can take steps to potentially fix it. You can dispute incorrect information, work with a credit repair company or improve your credit score through more responsible financial habits. Your credit report isn’t set in stone, so keep an eye on it and be prepared to take action if necessary.

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