In the world of credit reporting there are a very limited number of companies who accept, store, maintain, compile and sell your credit information. In fact, there are really only three companies who fit that mold. They are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. While there are certainly more companies who are legally defined as “Consumer Reporting Agencies”, these are “The Big 3.”
Equifax is based in Atlanta and is publically traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “EFX.” They have been around in some form or fashion since the late 1800s and are generally recognized as the oldest of the credit reporting agencies. Their traditional stronghold has been in the Southern states and parts of the Midwest.
TransUnion is based in Chicago and is privately owned by the Pritzker family (49%) and the Chicago based private equity firm Madison Dearborn (51%). Their traditional stronghold has been in the Northeastern states and other parts of the Midwest.
Experian is publically traded in the United Kingdom on the London Stock Exchange and is the youngest of the Big 3 credit reporting agencies in the US. They are the product of, among other things, an acquisition of TRW’s Credit Services division in 1996. Their traditional stronghold has been in the Western states.
There is a fourth credit bureau called Innovis Data Solutions based in Columbus, Ohio who has been around in some form for over 50 years yet most people have never heard of them. At this time, and this can always change, they don’t sell credit reports to lenders or consumers the same way as the Big 3.
What do These Companies Do?
The short answer to that question is “a lot”, but the short answer isn’t sufficient. From a consumer’s perspective we know these companies as “credit bureaus” and that’s basically where our understanding ends. These companies compile data about our lending, collection and public record experiences and fashion that data into a credit file or credit report. These reports are sold to lenders, insurance companies, landlords, utility providers, employers and consumers.
The companies and individuals who use credit reports generally do so to get a better understanding of consumer risk before they’ll extend credit, underwrite an insurance policy or hire you. Because of that, credit reporting agencies, their information, and the companies who provide them with and use their data are highly regulated. The primary law that regulates the credit data system is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (or FCRA). This law defines, among other things, under what condition a credit bureau can provide data, how often consumers can get free copies of their data, and the obligation to ensure the data’s accuracy.
Can I Get A Copy Of My Own Credit Report?
Not only is the answer “yes”, but a resounding “YES!!” Not only can you get a copy of your own credit reports but you absolutely should get a copy, several times a year. This information controls so much of your life and you have to ensure that it’s as accurate as possible. And, the law is generally on your side when it comes to obtaining free credit reports. In fact, the FCRA mandates that consumers be allowed to obtain a free credit report once per year from any company that maintains it. So, all four of those companies that I referred to earlier, you can get a free copy from each of them. You can do this at www.annualcreditreport.com for Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. For Innovis you’ll have to go to their website to claim your freebie.
Depending on what state you live in you may also be entitled to additional free credit reports. Residents of Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont are entitled to another free credit report either annually or once every 12 months. And, if you live in GA, like me, then you’re entitled to two additional free credit reports every calendar year.
If you haven’t seen your credit reports in the past six months, get them NOW!!
John Ulzheimer is the President of Consumer Education of SmartCredit.com and the credit blogger for Mint.com. He is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring and identity theft. Formerly of FICO, Equifax and Credit.com, John is the only recognized credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has served as a credit expert witness in more than 70 cases and has been qualified to testify in both Federal and State court on the topic of consumer credit.