It is easier than ever before to keep a close eye on your credit reports. There is no shortage of websites that offer free access to one or more of your credit reports, and many of your credit scores. In fact, your credit card issuer might even share one of your credit scores with you as part of your monthly statement.
Having written that, while free credit reports and scores are certainly great, they offer you a limited picture of your overall credit landscape. Every company that offers truly free reports will NOT provide you with access to all three of them.
How the Three Credit Bureau System Leads to Inconsistencies
In the United States there are three major credit bureaus, also known as credit reporting agencies. They are Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Among other services offered, the “Big Three” are in the business of collecting data and information about your credit management habits and then selling that information in the form of credit reports to other lenders when you apply for a loan.
The first fact about the three credit bureaus that’s important for you to understand is that they do not work together in a cooperative fashion, unless they’re compelled to do so by federal or state laws. They also do not share information — they are competitors.
Because of the nature of the three-bureau system, credit reporting can often be a bit lopsided. You might have information appearing on one of your credit reports which is absent from the other two. In fact, the information contained in your credit reports is very likely to differ, to at least some degree, from bureau to bureau.
Yes, a lot of the information in your credit reports is going to be redundant, thanks to the fact that most major lenders will furnish your account management information to all three credit bureaus. However, there are certainly some lenders (especially smaller banks and credit unions) that may report your account information to just one of the three credit bureaus as well.
Inconsistencies in your credit reports, and by extension your credit scores, can occur for a variety of other reasons as well. For example, a collection account might only appear on your Equifax report, causing that credit score to be significantly lower than the others. An authorized user account might only show up on two credit reports, leaving the third report and score in worse shape due to the absence of a positive, low-balance account. You could even have a large number of inquiries that occurred with just one credit bureau and not the others, impacting that particular credit score negatively. It can be maddening!
Why Checking Just One Credit Report Is Not Enough
If you’ve only checked one or two of your credit reports, then you really do not yet know the true overall condition of your credit. You might have a good idea, but there is an equal chance that you could be in for an unpleasant surprise.
That gap in credit report knowledge could potentially hurt you the next time you apply for a loan, especially a mortgage loan where lenders will scrutinize the information contained in not just one, but all three of your credit reports.
Credit reporting errors occur often, and it’s ultimately up to you to make sure that the information contained in all three of your credit reports is indeed accurate. This is one of the primary reasons (in addition to monitoring for fraud) why frequently checking all of your credit reports is such an important habit to establish, and not necessarily only once a year or as a New Year’s resolution.
Thankfully, you have the legal right to a free copy of all three of your credit reports every 12 months via the website AnnualCreditReport.com. If you’ve already claimed these free reports, then it is fine — wise, in fact — to continue to check your credit reports online periodically throughout the year as well. Just keep in mind that you might need to visit multiple credit report websites in order to get a look at the full picture. Several other websites will offer you access to all three of your reports on a one-time or monthly basis for a fee as well.
When you’re checking your credit reports, remember you also have the right to dispute any errors or fraud you discover. Keep in mind that if you discover an error on all three credit reports, you will need to dispute it with each credit bureau individually. Disputing erroneous accounts across all three credit bureaus gives you the best chance of having any credit reporting errors fully corrected.