Ask Stacy: Should I Pay for Identity Theft Protection and Credit Monitoring?


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We've all seen the ads: Protect your credit for just $9.95 a month! Worth the money? Here are three reasons why it's not.

This week’s question is about credit monitoring and ID theft prevention, something many Americans pay for monthly. Even if you don’t use one of these services, you’ve almost certainly seen the ads for them. Here’s the query, from Jim:

My question is: I now pay $9.95 each month to Tru-Credit, which purchases access to my credit report and credit score any time I want. In addition, I receive an email weekly, outlining any “activity” (or lack thereof) in my credit account. “Fraud Alert” is included in the $9.95 cost. I would appreciate your opinion on this service and it’s cost.

Thanks for the very helpful, down to earth, Money Talk News!!!
Jim

Thanks for the kind words, Jim! And for the great question. Here’s your answer:

Converting fear into fees

They say sex sells, and I’m sure they’re right. But I doubt it outsells fear. From burglar alarms to bomb shelters, Americans shell out billions annually to protect against all manner of evil: some real, many greatly exaggerated. But wherever fear can be churned up, you can bet there’s someone not far behind making a buck.

Such is the case with credit monitoring.

Credit monitoring is a $3 billion business, with millions of Americans paying for “protection” against ID theft and greater access to their credit histories and scores. The biggest beneficiaries? The Big Three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. (The company Jim uses, Tru-Credit, is owned by TransUnion.)

Why you probably shouldn’t pay for credit monitoring

1. You’re not liable if someone opens credit in your name

If someone forges your signature on a credit application, check or anywhere else, you’re generally not responsible for the charges. The law limits your liability on stolen credit cards to $50, and virtually all card issuers waive even that.

As with anyone stealing anything, the thief is liable. And if the thief isn’t caught or can’t make restitution, it’s a problem for the institution that accepted the fraudulent charge, not you.

Of course, we’ve all read stories of how credit fraud, like shoplifting, is passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. We’ve also read about the nightmare than ensues when your identity is stolen: Your credit is trashed, and you’re forced to spend months, even years, restoring it.

So why isn’t credit monitoring money well spent? Well, because…

2. Credit monitoring doesn’t prevent ID theft

Monitoring your credit is marketed as if it’s a burglar alarm that keeps bad guys out. But what it more closely resembles is an alarm that’s tripped as the bad guys are leaving. By definition, credit monitoring can only monitor transactions that have occurred, which isn’t the same thing as prevention.

From Consumer Reports:

… Affinion, Experian Consumer Direct, and LifeLock [have] been caught and punished for alleged deceptive marketing practices, such as not adequately disclosing automatic sign-up after “free” trials and promising to prevent ID theft, even though the services don’t actually do that.

As it happens, dissuading crooks from making off with your identity and going on a spending spree isn’t hard to do, and it doesn’t cost a dime. Just put a fraud alert on your account. According to Experian: “Fraud alert messages notify potential credit grantors to verify your identification before extending credit in your name in case someone is using your information without your consent.” Doesn’t that seem like a good idea? It costs nothing and there aren’t a lot of hoops to jump through. Take a look at the form and see for yourself.

Fraud alerts aren’t new. I recommended them six years ago, in 2009: see Free ID Theft Protection. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they’re only supposed to be used if you “believe you are (or are about to become), a victim of fraud or identity theft.” But with all the security breaches occurring practically weekly these days, doesn’t every American qualify?

So fraud alerts are one way to slow crooks down. An even more effective method is a security freeze. A freeze means nobody — including you — can open new credit until your account is “thawed,” a process that can take a few days.

Unlike fraud alerts, depending on where you live, these aren’t always free or even available, and some states also allow fees to temporarily lift the freeze. Read more about credit freezes at this page of the CFPB website and learn about the rules in your state at this page of the Consumers Union website.

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