Credit Reporting Agencies: Big 3 & Alternative Bureaus
While there are nearly 40 credit reporting agencies in the United States, the industry is dominated by just three large companies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Credit reporting agencies track financial account management information about consumers and businesses and sell this information to lenders and credit scoring companies. Employers, car dealers, property management companies, and a variety of other decision makers across seemingly all walks of life also use credit data to evaluate applicants.
Given the pervasive use of credit report data, the fact that it’s used to create credit scores, and the wide cost disparity between having good and bad credit, the government established a process through which consumers can order free copies of their credit reports once every 12 months. That’s also why it’s worth learning a bit about these companies that already know so much about us.
You can therefore find an overview of the following below:
Experian was formed in 1996 when the now-defunct British retailer GUS acquired TRW Information Services – the largest U.S. credit bureau at that time. Since its inception, Experian has expanded significantly around the globe, and in addition to its Dublin, Ireland corporate headquarters, the company now has operational hubs in England, Brazil, and California. Experian now employs more than 6,000 people in North America alone.
Experian’s business is comprised primarily of credit, marketing, and consumer services as well as decision analytics. It tracks information on consumers, businesses, insurance, motor vehicles, and select lifestyle characteristics.
Experian has come under fire on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. In January 2011, Britian’s The Daily Mail published an article highlighting consumer outrage over the company’s practice of advertising free credit reports only to enroll people in a hard-to-cancel monthly subscription service. FreeCreditReport.com, which is owned by Experian, has drawn similar ire from U.S. consumers.
In addition, a February 2013 60 Minutes piece about the prevalence of errors on American credit reports included interviews from three former Experian employees who alleged that they each handled roughly 90 credit report error dispute cases on a daily basis and were restricted by company policy from directly contacting the customers who initiated these disputes. Rather, the former employees said their investigations essentially amounted to calling the financial institutions that provided them with the supposedly erroneous information in the first place.
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013-0949
Equifax is the oldest of the three major credit bureaus, having been founded in 1899 under the name Retail Credit Company. Equifax is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and has more than 7,000 employees in 15 countries in North America, Europe, and South America.
Equifax primarily operates in the business-to-business space, selling consumer credit and insurance data to financial institutions, governments, insurance providers, and retail companies. It entered the consumer space in 1999, selling credit reports, scores, and monitoring services to the general public.
The company has endured its share of controversy over the years, and some have even alleged that its name change was actually prompted by negative publicity. Media reports in the 1960’s and early 70’s revealed growing concern about the extent of the information tracked by Retail Credit Company, which many people believed to include records concerning consumer’s sex lives, marital strife, and political activity. Congressional hearings on the matter were held as Equifax pushed to digitize its records (which would make them far more accessible), ultimately leading to the passage of the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1970. Retail Credit Company became Experian five years later.
“The basic objective of this act is to protect consumers from inaccurate and obsolete information in credit reports about them and to protect their privacy,” says Emmanuel Roussakis, a professor of finance at Florida International University. “This act gives a consumer the right to know the nature and source of the collected information and the recipient(s) of a report containing this information. The consumer can request the agency to correct any incorrect information and to notify accordingly the parties to which it was distributed.”
Equifax has since come under scrutiny for violations of the FCRA, receiving a $2.5 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission in 2000 (along with Experian and TransUnion) as well as settling an FTC lawsuit for $250,000 in 2003. In 2013, Equifax lost an $18.6 million lawsuit as a result of uncorrected errors on a consumer’s credit report.
Equifax Contact Info:
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
TransUnion was formed in 1968 to be the holding company for Union Tank Car Company. It entered the credit reporting space a year later with its acquisition of the Credit Bureau of Cook County. Experian now does business in 33 countries and has credit records on more than 500 million consumers worldwide.
TransUnion’s business model is similar to that of Experian and Equifax, offering data tracking and analytics services to a wide range of business and providing credit reports, scores, and monitoring services to consumers.
TransUnion has undergone ownership changes on three separate occasions in its relatively short history, having been sold to a group representing the Pritzger family (owners of the Hyatt Hotels chain) in 1982, which then sold its controlling interest to the private-equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners in 2010, which finally sold the company to its current owners – Goldman Sachs and Advent International – in 2012.
Like Equifax and Experian, TransUnion has been the subject of various lawsuits concerning credit reporting errors over the years. It received a $2.5 million fine from the FTC in 2000 and lost a pair of consumer suits in 2003 and 2006.
TransUnion Contact Info:
P.O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022
As mentioned previously, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion aren’t the be-all and end-all of the credit reporting business. There are tens of other companies – big and small – that are active in the space as well. Most have carved out a certain niche for themselves, from tracking rent and utility payments to keeping records on checking account management and insurance consumption.
Financial services companies, employers, landlords, etc. also add information from these sources to their evaluation criteria, just not to quite the same extent as the big three credit bureaus. Basically, the more information that banks and other consumer-facing companies have, the more accurate their consumer analytics and underwriting practices will be.
For example, “they use metrics such as the neighborhood (think zip code) where someone lives and the profile of the average person living there, says Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University. “Are there children present in the household? If so, it may imply additional financial burdens but also greater levels of responsibility for the individual card holder. How mobile is the household? Years ago, that was a good thing. Now, it may imply a lack of stability.”
For more information about who these alternative credit bureaus are as well as what role they play in the credit reporting industry, check out WalletHub’s article on the subject.