Three main credit bureaus in the United States collect and report consumer information. You’re probably familiar with them: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
In addition to those large bureaus, dozens of other consumer-reporting companies, sometimes called specialty agencies, gather and sell personal data to landlords, employers and other decision-makers.
“These specialty agencies focus in on a particular industry and provide data for that industry,” says Ruth Susswein, deputy director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a consumer advocacy nonprofit. “So they can have a great impact on your financial life, your job, where you live, where you work, what kind of insurance you can get.”
This is why you should know which firms collect your data, what data they gather and how you can verify it. The three major credit bureaus are not the only ones that matter.
What Is a Credit Bureau?
A credit bureau is a firm that gathers data about your financial past. It tracks consumer information, such as financial records, medical records or payments, insurance claims, and residential or tenant, check-writing and employment histories.
“These are companies whose primary goal is to compile information that they believe represents your relevant history,” says Freddie Huynh, vice president of credit risk analytics at Freedom Financial Network, which owns debt settlement and other financial companies. “They compile this information and sell it to lenders and other interested parties.”
Some consumer-reporting companies feed data to the three main credit bureaus. For example, data from Experian RentBureau, a tenant screening agency, is added to Experian credit reports. Information from dozens of consumer-reporting companies could end up in your credit report and influence your credit score.
Laws That Govern Consumer-Reporting Companies
Consumer-reporting companies such as credit bureaus don’t hand over your information to just anyone. They must follow guidelines on who can access your information and when.
These firms can only provide reports to people or companies with legitimate business reasons for requesting them, according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That could include lenders, employers, landlords, marketers, debt collectors, insurers, telecom and internet providers, retailers, and casinos.
Also, the FCRA aids consumers who want to request an agency report, dispute data within it or add a security freeze. Here’s how you can take these steps:
- Visit the reporting agency’s website for instructions on requesting a report. The agency must send you a copy of your report within 15 days of asking for it and can’t charge you more than $12.50 for it.
- If you find information that’s inaccurate or incomplete, you may file a dispute with the consumer-reporting company. It must investigate the dispute at no charge to you and correct any errors within 30 days. Request an updated report once errors have been corrected.
- You may also be able to set up a security freeze, which bars third-party access to your credit report to prevent you or others from opening accounts in your name.
Information Gathered by Consumer-Reporting Companies
These agencies collect different information about you, so their reports will vary, and some agencies will have none of your personal data. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lists agencies online and outlines the data they track as well as whether you can request a report and a security freeze.
You probably don’t need to check every report, Huynh says. But if you have been a victim of identity theft, you may want to view select reports before applying for a job, a loan or an insurance policy.
Plan ahead, Susswein suggests. “You want to give yourself enough time to get the specialty report, look at it, dispute anything you need to and have it corrected,” she says.
How to Maintain Positive Reports
You may have some control over the data in certain consumer reports. For example, paying your bills on time can help you maintain positive information in your tenant, credit and utility reports. You need solid credit to get the best rates on financial products, including mortgages, auto loans and insurance.