In my years 15 as part of the credit world I believe one of the most common questions I get is “John, which is the best credit bureau?”
When I was at Equifax (91-97) I had to carry the company banner so “Equifax” was always my answer regardless of what I might have thought. When I was at FICO (97-04) I still couldn’t answer the question. The reason I couldn’t answer is because Fair Isaac was (and still is) a strategic partner of all three of the credit bureaus. For me to answer that question would have come across like I was favoring one of our partners over the other two. Couldn’t do that. I had to be Switzerland.
But, now that I’m not on any of their payrolls I can be a little bit more engaging when this question comes up.
Before I get into this I want to make one point very clear. I have NO ax to grind with any of the credit bureaus or their employees. I left Equifax on my own, enjoyed my time there very much, and still have friends there. I also worked with many TransUnion, Equifax and Experian employees when I was at FICO. I respect these people very much and I respect the bureaus for how successful they have become selling consumer credit data, which has become a commodity. It’s a very difficult business that they’re in and I recognize that. Consumers and consumer advocates hate them for no good reason and it’s tough to work in that environment.
Ok, now that we’ve taken care of that…
When I did my own evaluation of the three bureaus I used several key factors to determine a score for each of the three. Imagine that…me using a score to grade the credit bureaus. It appears that the shoe is on the other foot, for a moment anyway.
I used a list of five characteristics and a simple scale of between 300 and 850 (sound familiar?) The characteristics were as follows…
- The price points of their consumer products
- Data accuracy
- Marketing practices
- Perception in the end user market (banks, credit unions, insurance companies, etc)
I considered each of these areas to have equal value so each section was worth up to 170 points giving each of the three an opportunity to score up to 850. Let’s see how our credit bureaus scored.
Today we’ll score Experian. Monday we’ll score TransUnion and Tuesday we’ll wrap it up with Equifax.
Accessibility - None of the credit bureaus are going to max out here. It’s the nature of their business. The only time anyone contacts one of the bureaus is when they want a copy of their credit report or they want to complain about it. Having said that, Experian is especially lousy about how they treat consumers. It’s basically impossible to get anyone on the phone unless you buy one of their products and then it’s still difficult. I’m convinced that if the Government didn’t force them to give us access to our credit reports we’d never see them unless we always paid for them. I give them 50 out of 170 possible points.
Price Points of Their Consumer Products – When you talk about Experian you also have to take into account the other companies that are owned by Experian but are branded as something else. That includes; FreeCreditReport.com, Consumerinfo.com and CreditExpert.com. Their price points are what I believe to be second highest in the industry. One of their products costs $119.40 each year to monitor just the Experian credit report. There are several other products out there that also monitor just one of the three credit reports but cost less than half of that.
I give them 100 out of 170 points
[Credit Cards: Research and compare credit cards at Credit.com]
Data Accuracy - The data that the credit bureaus contain is only accurate if the lenders and other companies that send it to them ensure that it’s accurate. So, believe it or not, I’m going to give the bureaus a pass on this one. Experian does work hard to ensure data accuracy where it can. I’ll give them 170 out of 170 points.
Marketing Practices - They don’t get a pass on this one. I’m going to throw them under the bus here. They practically invented “negative option marketing” as it’s used in consumer credit product related sales. They started the whole…”It’s free but you have to sign up for a service and if you don’t cancel within 30 days we’re going to start charging your credit card” trend amongst the credit bureaus. They had to settle with the FTC for almost $1,000,000 a year or so ago for these deceptive marketing practices.
Second, they sell artificial and valueless credit scores to consumers but pawn them off as if they were the same scores that lenders used. If you ever have the chance to speak with someone from Experian…ask them why they chose to scale their consumer scores so closely to that of the FICO credit score (300-850). The real answer (which you’ll never get) is to fool consumers into thinking that they were buying a FICO score. Some of their various sites have disclaimers stating that the scores they sell aren’t FICO scores but you have to have a shovel and some tenacity to find the buried text deep within their site. Since they started that trend I have to give them 0 points out of 170 and I’d suggest that they rename FreeCreditReport.com and start calling it…
That would be a more accurate name.
Perception in The Market – Ok, they’ll do well here but it’s not like they earned it. They are still riding high on the reputation built by TRW when they owned the credit data that Experian now owns. Regardless, they do have a good reputation still today among lenders and other users of their credit data. Their prices are on the high end but that’s somewhat admirable considering the price erosion that has taken a credit report from a $6.00 item down to a $.60 item. (Kind of makes you want to ask why they charge us consumers so much for credit reports when lenders get them, and a FICO score, for less than a buck). They were always formidable competition when I was at Equifax because of their data quality. I’ll give them 150 out of 170 points.
Experian’s score is 470. That’s not very good. That’s an “F.”
What do you think? Too harsh? Not harsh enough? Would you have liked to see me use other variables when judging these companies? Share your feedback in the comments section below.
Monday TransUnion steps to the plate. How will they do? Better or worse? Have a nice weekend as you ponder.