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(Stacy) – It’s a nightmare scenario. Someone, somewhere is pretending to be you. Using your credit cards, bank accounts, even getting loans in your name. It happens every year to millions of Americans and costs the banking industry billions. And even though your losses might be limited by the law (ultimately you’re not responsible for money obtained by someone illegally forging your signature,) should you become a victim, your life and credit rating will suffer; perhaps for years.

Enter American entrepreneurial spirit. Because ID theft is so highly publicized and so frightening, a crop of companies now offer to help–for a fee, of course. Pay them every month and they’ll help protect your identity. One even ran commercials showing a moving billboard driving around with the CEO’s social security number on it: that’s how confident he was that nobody could steal your identity with their $10/month service.

But here’s something the ads don’t say: the technique many services use is something you can do yourself in less than five minutes absolutely free.

What many of these companies do to protect you is simply put a fraud alert on your account. And all that entails is going to the Equifax Website and filling out a simple form. Once a fraud alert is on your credit file, anyone granting you credit is supposed to take extra steps to verify you’re who you say you are.

Take a look at the form. It’s no big deal to fill out. The fraud alert lasts 90 days. And the cost? Zip. And if you’re afraid you won’t remember to renew your fraud alert every 90 days, go to the website I mention in this TV news story: Shield Safe. They’ll remind you to renew your fraud alert via email every 90 days for free.

Last item of interest: in researching this story, I talked to Mike Prusinski, VP of Corporate Communications for Lifelock (the company that advertised their service via moving billboard with the CEO’s Social Security number prominently displayed) and discovered they no longer use fraud alerts to protect you. Why? According to Lifelock, it’s because they’ve developed new, proprietary computer algorithms that work better. But it also might have something to do with the fact that Experian got a permanent injunction that prohibits them from using blanket fraud alerts. (Read a press release about it here.) Experian essentially argued that fraud alerts are meant to be placed by individuals who suspect their information may have been compromised, not by companies who sell protection.

The other thing I learned in talking to Prusinski is that their CEO’s prominently-displayed social security number has indeed been compromised at least once: a guy used it at a check-cashing store in Texas a couple of years ago.

Bottom line? Some companies make millions without offering anything of real value. Instead of making an honest living like you and I do, they use clever ads to sell services that you can do yourself for free. That really gets my knickers in a knot. How about you?

Stacy Johnson

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