Scams

These Services Alert You to Identity Theft. Are They Worth It?

A number of services promise to notify you if you are a victim of credit fraud. But you'll pay a hefty fee.

The problem with identity theft is that you probably won't know when your personal data has been stolen–or even whether you've been a victim. A recent study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that the number of identity-fraud victims in the U.S. totaled 16.7 million in 2017. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, because the data of many millions more Americans has been exposed and may be used in the future to open fraudulent accounts. Last year's Equifax breach alone exposed addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers and other sensitive data for nearly 146 million people, launching them into ID fraud limbo.

Enter ID theft protection services. For $10 to $30 a month, they will alert you via text, e-mail or mobile app if they detect (or suspect) misuse of your data or accounts–perhaps sooner than you'd notice on your own–and to walk you through repairs.

Do you need an ID theft protection service? That depends on how much you're willing and able to do by yourself. Most paid plans offer at least one tier that watches over all three credit bureaus at once and can flag changes to your reports–such as the appearance of a new credit account–more quickly than you might detect by ordering your once-a-year freebies from www.annualcreditreport.com. Moreover, a good service will sweep online databases to see if your personal details pop up in court records, payday loans, sex offender registries or applications for new financial accounts. The service will also keep an eye out for address changes that could suggest a criminal is trying to reroute your mail, and it might look out for unfamiliar names or addresses linked to your SSN, too.

ID theft protection services often scour the secret chat rooms and black-market websites of the "dark web" for evidence that your SSN, e-mail address, driver's license number, passport number, mother's maiden name and other identifying info are up for grabs. "Some of this monitoring is challenging or dangerous to do on your own without the technical know-how," says Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. And although freezing your accounts is an important preventive step, it won't stop a crook from fiddling with your existing accounts.

Monitor to the max. A comprehensive package includes four main services: monitoring your credit report, monitoring other data tied to your identity, dealing with the aftermath of ID theft, and covering certain costs to restore your identity.

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