Credit reporting agencies -- also known as credit bureaus -- are private companies that collect information about your credit history from lenders like banks, credit card companies and student loan agencies. There are three major credit reporting agencies in the United States: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
When you apply for credit from a new lender (perhaps a credit card, home mortgage or a car loan), the lender requests a copy of your credit report from all three reporting agencies. Since credit reports provide the most detailed and accurate picture of your creditworthiness, the lender will base his or her decision primarily on what those reports say.
Each credit reporting agency works independently and many lenders don't report to all three companies. So it's possible that each of your three credit reports will be slightly different.
The scariest part about credit reports are that they routinely contain mistakes. A 2004 study by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) found that one out of every four credit reports contain serious errors [source: AP]. These mistakes can ruin your credit history, lower your credit score and make it difficult to buy a house or qualify for a credit card.
These errors could be innocent reporting mistakes or a sign of identity theft. Nearly 10 million Americans fell victim to this type of theft in 2008, up 22 percent from 2007 [source: WalletPop].
Before 1971, it was nearly impossible to know what information was on your credit report and whether or not it was accurate. That all changed with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which made it possible, for the first time, to buy a copy of your credit report and dispute false information.
The Fair and Accurate Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA) went even further, giving all U.S. citizens the right to request one free copy of their credit report every year from each of the "Big Three" credit reporting agencies.
Now there's a new product called a 3-in-1 credit report (or three-bureau credit report) that offers a side-by-side comparison of all three of your credit reports in one document. Credit reporting companies are touting this new document as the best way for consumers to see the big picture of their credit history, catch errors and identify the early warning signs of identity theft.
Learn more about ordering and interpreting a 3-in-1 credit report on the next page.
Accessing 3-in-1 Credit Reports
All three major credit reporting agencies -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- sell a 3-in-1 credit report that you can order from the companies' Web sites or over the phone. All three agencies also give you the option of accessing the 3-in-1 report online.
A 3-in-1 credit report is organized exactly like a regular credit report. The only difference is that information from all three credit bureaus is listed side-by-side for easy comparison.
Combination credit reports start with your personal information (name, current and previous addresses, Social Security number, employer information, etc.). A list of all open credit accounts follows. These accounts are divided into mortgage accounts, installment accounts (car loans, student loans) and revolving accounts (credit cards). The reports include detailed histories for each of your open and closed lines of credit, including on-time payment history, outstanding balances and credit limits.
Three-bureau reports also show your total outstanding debt compared with your total amount of available credit (credit limit). This is used to calculate your debt-to-credit ratio, an important number for potential lenders. A high debt-to-credit ratio indicates that you may be borrowing too much and are at risk for defaulting.
Every time you apply for credit, a lender makes an inquiry into your credit report. These are listed in the inquiries section. Inquiries aren't a bad thing. What looks bad is if you apply for lots of credit in a short period of time, making you look desperate. Inquiries stay on your credit report for two years. Thankfully, self-inquiries don't count and aren't included.
A useful section on a 3-in-1 report is called "negative information." Here you'll find any inquiries from collection agencies or public records that might lower your credit score (bankruptcy proceedings, liens, convictions, etc.). Negative information stays on your credit report for seven years, bankruptcies last a decade and criminal convictions stay forever! So if any of this information is false, dispute it quickly.
One disadvantage of 3-in-1 credit reports is that they don't simplify the process of disputing false information. For example, if the same false information is reported by all three credit bureaus, there's no central phone number you can call to resolve the issue with all three agencies at once. You still have to contact each of them and work through all three of their dispute resolution processes separately.
For lots more information on credit reports, credit scores and the magical world of debt, take a look at the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Associated Press. "One in four credit reports has serious errors." June 17, 2004http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5235161/
- Epstein, Lisa. "Nearly 10 million Americans hit by identity theft." WalletPop. February 9, 2009http://www.walletpop.com/blog/2009/02/09/nearly-10-million-americans-hit-by-identify-theft/