Many consumers believe they have a credit score, as in one score. And while a particular lender may focus on a single score, the reality is everyone has at least three scores.
That’s because there are three major credit bureaus, and each issues its own credit score.
It’s important to be aware of all three bureaus, so you can track not only your credit scores, but also your credit reports. And all three bureaus give you the ability to do just that.
The 3 Credit Bureaus
The three major credit bureaus are:
Each maintains databases of information for both individuals and businesses, especially credit data, that’s used to create credit reports. Your credit score is calculated from that credit report.
From one credit report to another, the information is mostly the same. But because there are a number of factors involved in the calculation, your credit scores for each of the three bureaus can be slightly different from one another.
And in some cases, they can be radically different, which we’ll discuss in some detail in a bit.
Unfortunately, each of the 3 credit bureaus operates in something of a “black box” environment. Though they compile information on individuals, they rely on the credit providers to supply that information.
This is why the information appearing on your credit reports may not be exactly what you think it should be. As well, the exact methodology for how the credit bureaus calculate credit scores isn’t provided in anything more than general detail, in addition to the fact that the algorithm for calculating the scores does change from time to time.
In the credit-driven world we live in, and given that employers, insurance companies, and other organizations also rely on credit information, it’s important to be aware of what’s on your credit report, as well as your credit score. Your credit score can determine whether you’ll be approved for a loan, what you’ll pay for the loan, or even whether or not you’ll get a certain job.
Fortunately, the credit bureaus have become more consumer friendly in recent years. You can obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the three bureaus once each year.
But all three are now offering paid consumer plans, giving you greater control over your credit report and what it contains. In particular, the plans make it possible to dispute erroneous information much easier than it has been in the past.
Below are summaries of each of the three major credit bureaus:
Based in Chicago, Illinois, and founded in 1968, TransUnion maintains information on more than 1 billion people throughout the world, including 200 million in the US. But as impressive as those numbers are, TransUnion is actually the smallest of the three major credit bureaus.
When you sign up for a subscription with TransUnion you can get unlimited scores and reports, updated daily, as well as instant alerts, sent as soon as TransUnion determine someone has applied for credit in your name.
You can also take advantage of TransUnion’s Credit Lock Plus which will protect both your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports. With the service, you can lock your credit reports to prevent criminals from applying for credit in your name. But you can also unlock it whenever YOU need to apply for credit.
TransUnion also offers consumer assistance, to help you dispute items on your credit report that may be in error. They also provide a dedicated credit education page to help you learn more about your credit report and how to properly manage it.
Learn more by reading our in-depth review of TransUnion.
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, and found it all way back in 1899, Equifax is one of the two largest credit reporting agencies in the world. The company earns more than $3 billion in revenues and has over 9,000 employees in 14 countries around the world.
Equifax offers a plan in which for under $20 per month, you can get credit scores from all three major credit bureaus, as well as credit report monitoring. They also provide social security number scanning, and allow you to add credit monitoring for up to four children under their family plan.
And much like TransUnion, you can also use the service to dispute credit items on your credit report.
Learn more by reading our in-depth review of Equifax.
Based in Dublin, Ireland, Experian is the “baby” of the Big Three credit bureaus, having been founded only in 1996.
But the company is nonetheless the largest of the three major credit bureaus, aggregating credit information on over 1 billion people and businesses, including at least 235 million in the US. The company operates in 37 countries, employing 17,000 people, with total revenues of $4.6 billion.
Experian also provides a consumer package that provides identity theft monitoring, credit alerts, and even Dark Web surveillance. They also provide access to FICO scores from all three bureaus, as well as fraud resolution with up to $1 million in identity theft insurance.
Like the other services, you can also freeze your credit, and dispute inaccurate information appearing on your credit report.
Learn more by reading our in-depth review of Experian.
Different Credit Reports, Different Credit Information
Earlier we noted that your credit scores from each of the three bureaus are generally similar, but they’re seldom exact. And it’s not at all unusual for there to be wide differences between them.
How does that happen if all three bureaus are getting essentially the same information from the creditors? Well, that’s the point – the information isn’t identical, and that’s why the credit scores vary.
Some of the reasons for the differences in scores are technical:
- The credit bureaus may calculate your credit scores on different days of the month. That holds the possibility that one or more creditors most updated information isn’t included in at least one of the bureau credit scores.
- Not all creditors report to all three bureaus. A creditor may report to TransUnion and Equifax, but not Experian. Because the information from the creditor won’t be reported to Experian, the Experian credit score can be much different from the other two.
- If you had a negative experience with a particular creditor that reported to one bureau and not the other two, your credit score with that one bureau will be significantly lower than with the other two.
Because of the above differences in creditor reporting, it’s important to make sure you’re monitoring your credit score and credit report from all three major bureaus. You could be thinking you have excellent credit based on your Experian credit score, because there is one creditor you have a bad experience with that reports to the other two bureaus but not to Experian.
This frequently happens when a consumer monitors only one credit bureau. It’s also common with many free credit score providers, that base their service on only a single credit bureau. The consumer only becomes aware of serious credit problems upon applying for credit, where the lender pulls credit from a different credit bureau. When that happens, a credit application can be delayed for 30 days or more while you try to correct or dispute the negative information.
This is why it’s so important to monitor your credit from all three bureaus, and not just one.
Handling Credit Disputes
In most cases, a credit dispute should be handled directly with the creditor. By doing so, you can get the creditor to correct the information in their own files, then report the updated information to all three credit bureaus. That will save you a lot of time and effort.
If you’re going to dispute credit information directly with the creditor, you’ll need to write a compelling letter explaining your reasons for the dispute. You’ll also need to supply documents supporting that the information being reported by the creditor is in error. And finally, you’ll need to request the creditor correct the information with all three credit bureaus.
That process usually happens within 30 days of a successful dispute with the creditor. But you’ll need to follow up since creditors are notorious for not supplying correct information to all three credit bureaus. For example, they may report the correct information to one bureau, and not the other two.
This is another reason why it’s so important for you to monitor your credit reports from all three bureaus. It’s not sufficient for the creditor to correct information with one or two bureaus. It needs to be corrected with all three.
Disputing Credit Information Directly Through the Credit Bureaus
If the creditor isn’t cooperative, you can contact each of the three bureaus and file a dispute. Under federal law, the credit bureaus are required to investigate any consumer-initiated disputes, and resolve them within 30 days. Again, this is a major reason why you will want to be monitoring your credit reports from all three bureaus.
The process in disputing information directly through a credit bureau is similar to what it is with the creditor. You’ll need to write a letter explaining the situation, and include any supporting documentation. If the creditor doesn’t respond to the credit bureau, the disputed information will be deleted. But if the creditor challenges it, your letter and supporting documentation will give the bureau a basis to change the information.
Final Thoughts on the 3 Credit Bureaus
It may be an extra expense to sign up for a credit bureau monitoring plan, but as important as your credit report and score are today, it’s money well spent. At a minimum, regular monitoring of your actual credit reports will enable you to catch identity theft and other potential fraudulent activity quickly. Speed is very important when it comes to identity theft, because it enables you to minimize the damage caused by the theft.
Regular monitoring of your credit can also give you that all-important high-altitude view of your total credit situation. Many people are well aware of the monthly bills they have to pay. But they’re often less aware of their total debt situation.
For example, you might grow very comfortable paying $800 per month in loan payments. But at the same time, you may not be well aware that the total of those loans is over $40,000. By monitoring your credit report on a regular basis, you’ll know exactly what you owe on all accounts, when you borrow too much, and when it’s time to start reversing the trend.
But equally important is monitoring your credit reports and credit scores for future use. Sometime in the future, you’ll be looking to apply for more credit. You might know when that will be and what it will be for, but at other times it may be unexpected. Either way, you’ll want to be fully prepared when that time comes.
By regularly monitoring and managing your credit properly, you’ll have an opportunity to clear up any errors, and maximize your credit score. To do that, you’ll need to know exactly what’s on your credit report at all times, as well as what your credit score is. Maintaining a plan with at least one of the three bureaus is the most accurate way to do that.