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PAGE ONE Economics

®

Credit Bureaus:
The Record Keepers
Jeannette N. Bennett, Senior Economic Education Specialist

GLOSSARY
Bankruptcy: A legal process for declaring
that a person is unable to pay his or her
debts. The process may involve a courtsupervised process of selling the bankrupt
person’s belongings to pay part of the
debts owed to creditors.

“Creditors have better memories than debtors.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Introduction

Creditor: A person, financial institution, or
other business that lends money.

If you’ve taken a personal finance class, listened to the news on radio or
television, read articles in the newspaper, or participated in social media,
chances are you’ve seen or heard something about a credit bureau. In fact,
the term “credit bureau” is so commonly mentioned that you may have
not given much thought to the work and power of credit bureaus and how
this affects you. Actually, there is much to learn about credit bureaus—
and the records they keep.

Debt: Money owed in exchange for loans or
for goods or services purchased with credit.

What Is a Credit Bureau?

Credit card: A card that represents an agreement between a lender—the institution
issuing the card—and the cardholder.
Credit cards may be used repeatedly to
buy products or services or to borrow
money, which must be repaid with interest.

Identity theft: A form of stealing that results
in someone gaining access to another
person’s personal information (name,
credit card numbers, date of birth, etc.)
to commit crimes (steal money, open a
credit card, etc.).
Installment credit: A loan given in a lump
sum for a specific purchase or investment.
The loan is paid back with regularly scheduled payments, which include interest.
Examples include home loans, car loans,
and business loans.
Lender: An individual or organization that
provides money to a borrower with the
expectation that the borrower will pay
the money back.
Mortgage: A loan for the purchase of a
home or real estate.
Revolving credit: A line of available credit
that is usually designed to be used
repeatedly, with a preapproved credit
limit. The amount of available credit
decreases and increases as funds are borrowed and then repaid with interest.

December 2017	

A credit bureau can be defined by considering the meaning of the two
separate words. The root word of “credit”—cred—means “believe.” Credit
is based on the belief that borrowed money will be paid back. As used here,
“bureau” means an office or department that collects and distributes information. The two words together mean a business that collects and distributes information about individuals and businesses to lenders. Decisions
on granting credit are based on belief established by credit records. In the
words of the American businessman and author Robert Kiyosaki, “Credit
is another word for trustworthiness.” Credit bureaus provide reports that
help to establish trustworthiness.

“We collect, organize and manage various types of financial, demographic, employment
and marketing information.”
—Equifax Annual Report 2016

Credit bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies or consumer
reporting agencies, are for-profit businesses. Collectively, they earn approximately $4 billion annually.1 They collect, store, and update credit information on most consumers and then sell the information to lenders such as
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PAGE ONE Economics®
banks, mortgage lenders, credit card companies, and
other financing companies. Bureaus compete for this
market by providing accurate information to lenders at
a competitive price.
Additionally, credit bureaus sell data in different ways.
For example, a common practice is to sell lenders lists of
consumers who meet predefined criteria for pre-approved
offers. In general, these offers may allow consumers to
receive credit or loans quickly. Credit bureaus also sell
services directly to consumers, such as credit monitoring
and fraud and identity theft protection.

Why, How, and When Credit Bureaus Started
Credit bureaus first emerged in the United States in the
late 1800s to help lenders.2 At that time, merchants
depended on their personal knowledge about customers.
Extending credit was very risky. A consumer could default
on a debt and simply go get credit somewhere else. To
prevent losses, local merchants started keeping records
on “bad customers” who didn’t pay their credit satisfactorily and were a poor credit risk.3
Over time, the need to know customer credit worthiness
increased. “Good customer” lists were developed and
shared for a price. Lenders paid for such lists and used
them to determine who would be given credit. The practice gradually expanded into for-profit companies.4
Beginning in the 1920s with the introduction of retail
installment credit and continuing to the 1950s with the
introduction of revolving credit accounts, credit reporting became increasingly important to both lenders and
borrowers. As the demand for credit reporting increased,
credit reporting companies began consolidating.5
The modern credit reporting industry began in the 1960s
when computers made data collection and sharing faster
and easier. By the 1970s, practically all credit data were
on computers. And beginning in the late 1980s, the
internet added a new dimension—data collection and
credit reporting online.6

The Big Three
Today there are three major national credit bureaus in
the United States: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Each of these “Big Three” maintains credit files on more
than 200,000,000 Americans.7 In addition, each bureau
has developed a particular focus: Experian specializes in

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2

Figure 1
Where Do the Big Three Credit Bureaus Get Information?

Other Sources
31%

Mortgage
Lenders
7%

General
Credit Cards
40%

Retail
Credit Cards
18%

Auto Lenders
4%
SOURCE: CFPB. “CFPB Report Details How the Nation’s Largest Credit Bureaus
Manage Consumer Data.” December 13, 2012;
https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/consumer-financialprotection-bureau-report-details-how-the-nations-largest-credit-bureausmanage-consumer-data/.

providing marketing services to businesses, for example
for pre-approved credit card offers. Equifax works closely
with corporate credit analysis. TransUnion specializes in
analyzing credit information on Americans living abroad.8
The Big Three, however, are not the only credit reporting
agencies. Over 400 smaller, regional, or industry-specific
credit bureaus exist in the United States.9 They collect
and share information with creditors and other businesses that need specific information such as rental,
medical, or employment histories.10 All credit bureaus
operate independently of each other and generally do
not share collected information with each other.

Gathering Credit Information
Every year, credit bureaus collectively make over 36
billion updates to consumer files from data from about
18,000 sources.11 The data come from creditors who do
business with consumers—for example, banks, credit
card issuers, retailers, and auto finance companies (see
Figure 1). Permission to share credit information, including with credit bureaus, is generally granted when a consumer signs up for credit. For credit cards, for example,
the specifics are usually explained in the fine print of the
disclosure agreement (see the boxed insert “Sample
Credit Card Customer Agreement”). Credit bureaus also

PAGE ONE Economics®
gather information from public records, such as those
for tax liens, bankruptcies, and court judgements and
proceedings.12
Sample Credit Card Customer Agreement
“We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.
This includes late payments, missed payments, or other defaults
on your account.”

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3

information. Your information is also sold to companies
that may prescreen you for their products and services.
Credit reports determine if you are eligible for credit and
how much you have to pay for it. The reports can also
influence your opportunity to get a job, rent or buy a
house, or even buy insurance. A credit report includes
the following information16:

•	

Personal data: Name, birth date, Social Security
number, past and current addresses, phone numbers,
and employers

Lenders submit both positive and negative information
electronically each month to at least one of the three
major credit bureaus. They do not necessarily report to
all three, and they do not all report at the same time.
Consequently, one credit bureau may have more current
information than another.

•	

Accounts: Revolving credit accounts and installment
loans, including creditor names, account numbers,
amounts owed, payment histories, and whether any
account is past due

•	

Public records: Court judgments, bankruptcies, and
tax liens

Although lenders furnish data to credit bureaus voluntarily, there are incentives for reporting. First, lenders
need accurate and complete records to determine future
credit decisions. As noted by the Federal Reserve Board,
“for the full benefits of the credit-reporting system to
be realized, credit records must be reasonable, complete, and accurate.”13 Second, reporting encourages
timely payments from borrowers. Consumers are more
likely to repay debts when they know a creditor may
report late payments or delinquent accounts, which can
hinder their ability to obtain credit in the future. Finally,
when consumers repay debt on time, their credit is positively impacted, which builds a larger pool of trustworthy
borrowers for future business. On the other hand, there
are disincentives for creditors to report borrower information to credit bureaus. For example, credit bureaus
may sell the names of creditworthy borrowers to competing lenders who then compete for those same
customers.14

•	

Recent inquiries: Who has recently viewed your
credit report

Reporting Information

Credit Reports
The credit bureaus each individually maintain the credit
history of an individual in a credit report. It is estimated
that credit bureaus release 3 billion credit reports annually.15 Individuals can request their own credit reports.
Addition­ally, businesses with a legally valid need to
view credit information can request credit reports. For
example, when you apply for a credit card, the credit
card company has a valid need to look at your credit

Negative information on a credit report does not remain
on a report forever. Information about a lawsuit or a
judgment against a consumer may be reported for seven
years or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is longer. Bankruptcies may be reported for up to
10 years, and unpaid tax liens may be reported for 15
years.17 As of July 2017, tax liens and civil debts will be
excluded from credit reports if they do not include a
consumer’s name, address, and either a Social Security
number or date of birth.18

Credit Scores
A credit score is a three-digit number based on information in a credit report. Credit scores are calculated at the
time requested and are not stored as part of a credit
report. Credit scores indicate a person’s credit risk (see
the boxed insert “Categories in a Credit Score”).
Lenders use credit scores to decide whether to offer credit
and the interest rate a person pays. Although there are
different scores and models, the FICO® credit score is the
most widely used score. FICO stands for Fair Isaac Corp.,
the company that developed the FICO credit-scoring
model. Lenders rely on FICO scores as an indicator of
responsible financial behavior. Higher FICO scores indicate a lower risk of default on credit; that is, consumers
with a high FICO score tend to make payments on time

PAGE ONE Economics®
Categories in a Credit Score

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Figure 2
Default Risk by FICO Score

Credit scores are calculated based on weighted specific categories:

80%

Payment history
Amounts owed

60%

Length of the credit history

50%

New credit

40%

Types of credit accounts (e.g., mortgages, car loans, or credit
cards)

30%
20%
10%
0%
-10%
300-499
500-509
510-519
520-529
530-539
540-549
550-559
560-569
570-579
580-589
590-599
600-609
610-619
620-629
630-639
640-649
650-659
660-669
670-679
680-689
690-699
700-709
710-719
720-729
730-739
740-749
750-759
760-769
770-779
780-789
790-799
800-850

SOURCE: USA.gov. “Credit Reports and Scores.” Accessed November 7, 2017;
https://www.usa.gov/credit-reports.

Median

70%

Default Risk

•	
•	
•	
•	
•	

4

and use credit responsibly. Conversely, lower credit scores
indicate a higher default credit risk; that is, consumers
with a lower FICO score tend to make late and/or no payments (see Figure 2).

Regulation
The first federal law regulating credit bureaus was the
Fair Credit Reporting Act enacted in 1971. This act has
been revised numerous times, including by the Fair and
Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACT Act).
The FACT Act created new responsibilities for credit
reporting agencies and users of credit reports, many
concerning credit disclosures and identity theft. It also
created new rights for consumers, including the right to
free annual credit reports (see the boxed insert “Check
Your Credit Reports”).19

Check Your Credit Reports
Credit reports can be wrong, and they will show if someone has
fraudulently opened credit in your name. It is a good idea to check
your credit reports once a year. By law, each of the Big Three
credit bureaus must provide one free credit report each year.
Request reports here: www.annualcreditreport.com.

In 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
became the first federal agency to supervise all aspects
of the credit reporting market.20 The CFPB works to ensure
consumer financial products and services are fair by
implementing and enforcing consumer financial laws.21
Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an
independent agency of the U.S. federal government
designed for consumer protection to prevent fraudulent,

FICO Score

SOURCE: CFPB. “Analysis of Differences between Consumer- and CreditorPurchased Credit Scores.” September 2012, p. 10;
http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201209_Analysis_Differences_Consumer_
Credit.pdf.

deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide
information to identify and avoid them. By law, the CFPB
and the FTC are required to work together to “coordinate
their enforcement activities and promote consistent
regulatory treatment of consumer financial products
and services.”22

Conclusion
The primary purpose of credit bureaus is record keeping.
They collect information on consumers who use credit
and charge a fee to issue credit reports. Creditors pay
for these reports and use them when making decisions
about extending credit and the terms of credit offered.
Credit records may provide insight into future behavior23
and reflect the belief that a person’s ability to repay a
debt is directly related to how they have handled debt
in the past. A review of a consumer’s credit reports can
reduce the risk of lending.
Credit reports can benefit consumers, too. Credit reports
reflect the financial behavior of individuals, and for those
who are financially responsible, there is a big reward:
credit with favorable terms. Most consumers cannot
afford to pay cash for a house, car, or other large purchases and depend on credit—made available with good
credit records. Having a record that shows financial
responsibility includes many things such as paying bills
on time and managing debt. Credit reports can also

PAGE ONE Economics®

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serve to protect consumers from making purchases
they can’t afford. As the late U.S. Secretary of Commerce
Jesse H. Jones once said, “One of the greatest disservices
you can do a man is to lend him money that he can’t
pay back.” n

12

Notes

14

See footnote 2.

15

See footnote 7.

1

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). “Fact Sheet: Credit Reporting
Market.” Accessed November 7, 2017;
http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201207_cfpb_factsheet_credit-reporting-market.pdf.
2

CFPB. “Key Dimensions and Processes in the U.S. Credit Reporting System: A
Review of How the Nation’s Largest Credit Bureaus Manage Consumer Data.”
December 2012, p. 7; http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201212_cfpb_credit-reporting-white-paper.pdf.
3

CreditRepair.com. “What Is a Credit Bureau? Know Their History.” Accessed
November 7, 2017; https://www.creditrepair.com/articles/credit-improvement/
history-of-credit-bureaus.
4

Rotter, Kimberly. “Credit Bureau Guide: What the Differences Are Between
Equifax, TransUnion, & Experian.” July 5, 2016;
https://www.creditsesame.com/blog/credit/credit-bureau-guide-what-the-differences-are-between-equifax-transunion-experian/.
5

See footnote 2.

Rotter, Kimberly. “A History of the Three Credit Bureaus.” Accessed November 7,
2017; https://www.creditrepair.com/blog/credit/credit-bureau-history/.
See footnote 1.

8

See footnote 6.

9

See footnote 7.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Credit Reports and Credit
Scores.” Accessed November 7, 2017; https://www.federalreserve.gov/creditreports/pdf/credit_reports_scores_2.pdf.
13

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Report to Congress on
Credit Scoring and Its Effects on the Availability and Affordability of Credit.”
August 2007, p.17; http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/rptcongress/creditscore/creditscore.pdf.

16

Experian. “Credit Report Basics.” Accessed November 7, 2017;
https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/credit-education/report-basics/.
17

USA.gov. “Credit Reports and Scores.” Accessed November 7, 2017;
https://www.usa.gov/credit-reports.
18

McCoy, Kevin. “Consumer Credit Scores to Exclude Some Debts, Liens Starting
July 1.” USA TODAY, March 2017;
https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/13/reports-credit-scoressoon-exclude-some-debts-liens/99113572/.
19

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Fair Credit Reporting” in
Consumer Compliance Handbook. June 2011, p. 1;
https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/supmanual/cch/fcra.pdf.
20

CFPB. “CFPB Oversight Uncovers and Corrects Credit Reporting Problems.”
March 2, 2017; https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/
cfpb-oversight-uncovers-and-corrects-credit-reporting-problems/.
21

6

7

5

CFPB. “Rulemaking.” Accessed November 7, 2017;
https://www.consumerfinance.gov/policy-compliance/rulemaking/.
22 FTC. “Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Pledge

to Work Together to Protect Consumers.” January 23, 2012;
https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2012/01/federal-trade-commission-consumer-financial-protection-bureau.
23

10

Stone, Corey. “So How Many Consumer Reporting Companies Are There?”
CFPB, July 16, 2012; https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/
so-how-many-consumer-reporting-companies-are-there/.

Excluding consumers who have a low credit score or no score at all because
they don’t use credit.

11

Consumer Data Industry Association. Statement of Stuart K. Pratt before the
Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and
Consumer Credit. House of Representatives, March 24, 2010, p. 7;
https://web.archive.org/web/20100409163529/http://www.house.gov/apps/list/
hearing/financialsvcs_dem/pratt_testimony.pdf.

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© 2017, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System.

PAGE ONE Economics®

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6

Name___________________________________ Period_______
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®:

“Credit Bureaus: The Record Keepers”

After reading the article, circle the correct answer for each question.
1.	 A consumer’s credit report does not include the consumer’s
	

a.	 birth date or Social Security number.

	

b.	 race, age, or gender.

	

c.	 past or current addresses.

	

d.	 creditors or the amounts owed to them.

	

e.	 Both b and c

2.	 Credit bureaus first emerged in the United States in the late 1800s
	

a.	 to help lenders lessen the risk of extending credit.

	

b.	 because of consumers who did not pay their bills.

	

c.	 as a for-profit company.

	

d.	 Both a and b

	

e.	 All of the above

3.	 Credit bureaus
	

a.	 began in the 1920s when computers made data collection and sharing faster and easier.

	

b.	 must have written permission from consumers to collect and share their credit information.

	

c.	 make a profit by selling information to lenders and by selling products directly to consumers.

	

d.	 issue credit reports because the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau requires them to do so.

	

e.	 None of the above

4.	 All of the information included in credit reports
	

a.	 is reported for seven years.

	

b.	 can be removed within three years.

	

c.	 is always accurate.

	

d.	 Both a and b

	

e.	 None of the above

5.	 Most of the information collected by the Big Three credit bureaus comes from
	

a.	 mortgage lenders and auto lenders.

	

b.	 auto lenders and retail credit cards.

	

c.	 general credit cards and other sources.

	

d.	 retail credit cards, auto lenders, and mortgage lenders.

	

e.	 mortgage lenders and retail credit cards.

PAGE ONE Economics®

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7

6.	 Credit scores are
	

a.	 calculated each month when lenders provide new information.

	

b.	 designed to indicate the risk that a person will repay a loan or credit obligation on time.

	

c.	 always the same with each of the Big Three credit bureaus.

	

d.	 based on the income of a consumer.

	

e.	 calculated at the close of each day.

7.	 FICO scores indicate the financial responsibility and behavior of consumers. It is important for lenders to review a 	
	 consumer’s FICO credit score because
	

a.	 consumers with higher credit scores are more likely to miss payments.

	

b.	 consumers with lower credit scores are more likely to not pay on time and possibly make no payments at all.

	

c.	 it is less risky to give credit to consumers who manage to keep a low credit score.

	

d.	 higher credit scores usually result in lower risk to the lender.

	

e.	 Both b and d

8.	 Which statement is incorrect?
	

a.	 Credit bureaus are supervised by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

	

b.	 Credit bureaus always charge a fee to issue a credit report.

	

c.	 Credit bureaus have the ability to use computers and the internet to collect and share credit reports.

	

d.	 Since 1971, there have been laws to regulate credit bureaus.

	 e.	 Consumers are entitled to a free copy of their credit report once a year from each of the Big Three credit 	
		bureaus.
9.	 Credit bureaus
	

a.	 keep records and sell credit reports to lenders.

	

b.	 can be beneficial to consumers who are financially responsible and need credit to make large purchases.

	

c.	 are businesses that work to earn a profit.

	

d.	 generally work independently and do not share information with each other.

	

e.	 All of the above

10. Lenders provide information to
	

a.	 credit bureaus because it is in their best interest to have complete and accurate records.

	

b.	 credit bureaus because they are required to do so by the government.

	

c.	 all three of the major credit bureaus on the same day once a week.

	 d.	the www.annualcreditreport.com website once a month.
	

e.	 at least one of the Big Three credit bureaus each day.


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