What Are the 3 Main Credit Bureaus & How Do They Work?

The three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — play a key role in your financial life. But do you know how they work?

Money expert Clark Howard emphasizes all the time how important it is to have clean credit reports and good credit scores. To do that, you have to understand who you're dealing with and how they operate.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how the three big credit reporting agencies do business, how that affects you and what options you have when it comes to dealing with them.

What Are the 3 Main Credit Bureaus?

The three main credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

All three companies work essentially the same way: They collect information on your credit behavior and sell that data to other companies that use it to decide your creditworthiness.

These credit reporting agencies can collect this information without your permission, but what they do with it is regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). That means:

  • You must be told if the information they collect is being used against you.
  • You have the right to know what's in your file.
  • You have the right to ask for your credit score.
  • You have the right to dispute incomplete or incorrect information.
  • You have the right to request a "security freeze" on your file.

We’ll get into how to manage these things later in this article.

How Do The Credit Bureaus Work?

Credit bureaus collect information from a number of sources to create what’s commonly called a “credit report” on consumers like you and me. Those sources can include banks, credit card companies, other lenders, retailers and even landlords.

Whenever you apply for credit — say, a new credit card or an auto loan — the creditor will pull your credit report from one or more of those bureaus to check your creditworthiness. In general, the fewer negative marks you have on your credit report, the more likely you'll be able to get a credit card or loan with favorable rates.

Those reports are also used to generate your credit scores, which are used in credit-making decisions as well. Each credit bureau assigns its own score for you. Those scores can be different from agency to agency. It depends on the information each of the credit agencies has been able to get and the formula each uses to calculate your score.

Here Are the Things You Might Need to Do With the Credit Bureaus

Now that you know what the three main credit bureaus are and how they work, you might be wondering what control you have over the credit files they’re keeping on you. There are a number of ways you can interact with the bureaus:

  • General Contact: If you have any questions about your credit report or the credit bureaus in general, you can call them directly.
  • Get Your Free Credit Reports: Each of the bureaus allows you to access your credit file for free. Clark recommends that you check your reports with all three bureaus at least once a year. That's to make sure there are no errors and to see if there are any other issues you might need to address.
  • Dispute Any Mistakes You Find on Your Report: If you do find any mistakes on your credit reports, each bureau has a process for disputing them.
  • Place a Freeze on Your Credit: Placing a security freeze on your credit report with all three bureaus will help prevent someone else from opening any new credit accounts in your name.

So how do you accomplish these things? Let’s get into the specifics with each bureau.

How to Get Your Credit Report From Each Credit Bureau

You can request a free copy of your credit report from two of the three credit bureaus. Here’s how:

Equifax

To get your free credit report from Equifax, you have to sign up for the myEquifax program. As a member of myEquifax, you get access to your Equifax credit report twice per year at no charge.

Equifax may try to push you to sign up for one of its paid products. It is not necessary to do this in order to get your free report.

Experian

You can sign up to get your free Experian credit report here. One nice thing about Experian's offering is that it lets you access your credit report for free every 30 days after you sign up.

Again, beware of signing up for paid products with Experian.

TransUnion

Unfortunately, as of this writing, TransUnion doesn't give you a way to get your credit report directly from the company — except in limited circumstances.

Instead, the TransUnion website will point you to AnnualCreditReport.com, where you can access your free credit report.

How to Contact the Credit Bureaus

If you need to contact Equifax, Experian or TransUnion for any reason, you have a few options. Here’s the contact information:

Bureau Phone (Reach a Real Person)
Online Contact
Equifax 1-866-640-2273 Click here
Experian 1-714-830-7000 Click here
TransUnion 1-866-640-2273 Click here

To learn more about reaching a real person at each of the credit bureaus, click here.

How to Dispute an Error With the Credit Bureaus

When you access your credit reports, you may find errors in them. If you choose to request removal of the error by mail, you'll need to send the bureau a letter. You can find a template for that letter here.

Equifax also offers a way to dispute errors online, but completing the process by mail can help you keep a better paper trail. And Clark recommends you send the letter via Certified Mail.

If you choose to dispute the error by mail, you will need to fill out one or more of the dispute forms linked below.

 Credit Bureau Address for Disputes Link to Instructions/Dispute Form
Equifax Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374-0256

Instructions

Online Dispute Form

Experian Experian
P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013

Instructions

Dispute Form

TransUnion TransUnion Consumer Solutions
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016-2000

Instructions

Dispute Form

How to Freeze Your Credit With All Three Credit Bureaus

Clark says that freezing your credit with all three major credit bureaus is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself against identity theft — and it’s free. Here’s how to do it:

Credit Bureau Online By Phone
By Mail
Equifax Equifax Credit Freeze page 888-298-0045 Equifax Information Services, LLC
P.O. Box 105788
Atlanta, GA 30348
Experian Experian Credit Freeze page 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742) Experian Security Freeze
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion TransUnion Credit Freeze page 888-909-8872 TransUnion
P.O. Box 160
Woodlyn, PA 19094

Learn more about freezing your credit here.

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