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A DUNS number is a nine-digit number assigned to companies around the world that are registered with Dun & Bradstreet, an international business information provider. The number itself contains no information about a company, but rather serves as a unique identifier, much as national ID numbers, such as the Social Security number in the United States, are used to identify individuals. A DUNS number is used to check a company’s credit and financial history as it appears in the Dun & Bradstreet database.
Businesses understood the need for far-reaching, unbiased credit reporting as early as the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1933 when a historic merger created international reporting giant Dun & Bradstreet. Its function is to collect data from banks and other creditors about the state of a given company’s credit and report it to entities looking to do business with that company, much as personal credit reporting agencies collect and distribute information about an individual's credit history. Dun & Bradstreet reports may also contain information such as the number of employees, previous company names and addresses; the number of shares issued also may be included if the company is a public corporation. Worldwide, more than 100 million corporations, non-profits, partnerships, sole proprietorships and limited liability companies are registered with Dun & Bradstreet.
In 1963, Dun & Bradstreet created the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) to help alleviate the issues caused by using a company’s name as its identifier. The name-identifier system led to redundancies and misinformation due to misspellings and human error. For example, a customer might request information on “Smith & Co.” when he really wanted information on “Smithe and Co.” Alternatively, a clerk might pull the information on Smith & Co. in Columbus, Ohio, when the customer actually wanted information on Smith & Co. in Columbus, Georgia. Further, the same company might be listed multiple times: as “Smith & Co.,” “Smith & Company,” and “Smith and Company.”
Assignment of a DUNS number eliminated these issues almost completely. The terminal digit in each company’s number serves as a “check number” and relates mathematically to the other digits in the number, allowing Dun & Bradstreet to verify that the correct number has been used. Additional processes are in place to ensure that each registered company is assigned only one DUNS number.
Dun & Bradstreet reports may be used by banks, creditors, grant-giving entities and even customers when determining whether to do business with a given company. All requests for information must include a valid DUNS number. Upon receipt of such a request, Dun & Bradstreet will forward the information it has gathered on the company in question to the requester. Some businesses, particularly large, global corporations, may refuse to do business with any company that does not have a DUNS number.