Identity Theft Protection FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions about Identity Theft Protection
- What is identity theft?
- How does identity theft happen?
- What do thieves do once they steal my identity?
- How can I prevent identity theft?
- What type of identity theft protection is right for me?
- What do I do if I think I am a victim of identity theft?
- What is a fraud alert?
- What is a credit freeze?
- Can I protect my entire household with a family plan?
- Can money lost due to identity theft be recovered?
- Which identity theft services offer assistance in Spanish?
- How can I protect my children from identity theft?
- How do the ID theft insurance and guarantees work?
- Will an ID theft protection service help me restore my identity if I do become a victim?
- Will an identity theft protection service hurt my credit score in any way?
- How did NextAdvisor review these identity theft protection services?
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Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States. The FTC estimates that 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Identity theft occurs when thieves use your personal information (such as your Social Security number or driver's license number) to gain access to money, credit, goods or services in your name. Since your name is used for these activities, companies come to you seeking repayment of the money or goods that were illegally obtained. While legally you do not owe anything, it can often be difficult to prove this and it can take months and even years to get everything straightened out, costing you a huge amount of time and resources. In the meantime, you can be left with no access to credit as credit card companies, banks, utilities (phone, cell phone, cable) and other financial institutions can cut off your credit accounts until your good name is restored. Many people have actually been arrested and jailed because an identity thief committed crimes in their name.
Identity thieves can get access to your personal information in a myriad of different ways. These include:
- Stealing mail
- Copying down or taking pictures of your information in a retail transaction
- Data breaches at companies that have your information
- Stolen wallets or purses
- Documents thrown in the trash by you or a business that has your information (dumpster diving)
- Computer viruses
- Intercepting data from insecure networks or sites
- Overhearing or hacking into phone conversations
- Pretexting, meaning use false pretenses to get your personal information from companies that have it (financial institutions, utilities, etc.)
- Changing your address through a change of address form in order to divert billing statements from your home to an address the thief controls
Identity thieves continue to come up with new ways to benefit from your stolen identity. The most common thing an identity thief does is open up a new account in your name. This can be a credit card account, a bank account which they use to write bad checks, a phone or wireless phone account, or a utility account such as heat, electricity or television. The thief then racks up charges in your name and never pays them, leaving creditors to come after you. Another common tactic is to take out a loan in your name for something like a car or even a house. Identity thieves also commonly use your identity in dealings with the government. The purpose of this can vary from receiving benefits in your name (such as Social Security, or even a tax refund) to avoiding prosecution by giving police your information when arrested. Of course, when you don't show for the court date, a warrant is then issued for your arrest! We could go on, but suffice it to say, there are hundreds of ways for an identity thief to benefit from using your personal information.
Signing up for one of our recommended services is the best way. Each service is different and different ones may be best for different people. In general we recommend the services that provide the most fraud monitoring possible. Identity thieves have become increasingly sophisticated so monitoring as many information sources as you can, such as your credit files with the three credit bureaus and any public records with your name or address, is recommended. Our highest rated services will also ask you for personal information, such as your credit card and bank account numbers and your Social Security number, so they can monitor Internet black market sites for any illicit use of your information. See "What type of identity theft protection is right for me?" for help on which type of solution you should get.
In addition to signing up for one of our recommended services, there are many things you can do to help prevent identity theft:
- Carefully monitor your credit report for any suspicious activity (many of our recommended identity theft services do this, as do all of our recommended credit monitoring services.)
- Always shred documents containing personal or financial information.
- Only put your name on your checks - don't include your Social Security number, address or even your phone number.
- If you receive preapproved credit offers (many of our recommended services stop these from being mailed to you), make sure you destroy them.
- Don't carry your Social Security number, birth certificate or passport in your wallet.
- Don't mail anything from your personal mailbox unless it has a lock.
- Carefully review all monthly financial statements (credit cards, bank accounts) to be sure there is no fraudulent activity.
- Never give out personal information over the phone unless you are absolutely sure who you are speaking to.
- Never give out personal information on the Internet unless you are absolutely sure you are on a trustworthy website.
- Do not click links from emails to get to an online account - it may be a fake email directing you to a counterfeit site (phishing). If you think the email is legitimate, type in the web address of your account yourself.
Broadly speaking, we classify identity theft protection into three different types of fraud monitoring: credit report monitoring, automated credit bureau fraud alert settings, and public record/black market monitoring. We think all three types are very valuable and most services offer some combination of all three of these types.
Credit report monitoring is the most well known and established type of monitoring and also the only one you have no way of doing yourself for free. Credit report monitoring is very effective since the most common type of identity theft is opening a new credit account in your name and when that happens it will show up on at least one of your credit reports. We recommend monitoring all three bureaus as only monitoring one means accounts could be opened that are only reported to another bureau, rendering your monitoring useless.
LifeLock pioneered the automated credit bureau fraud alert settings, and they are the only service to still offer this feature. Setting fraud alerts with the credit bureaus means that there is a note placed on your credit file telling any company that is opening a new account with your Social Security number to confirm your identity, usually by calling a phone number you provide. In theory, this is a very good and proactive way to prevent identity theft, preventing an account from even being opened rather than catching the account after it's opened, but in practice there have been some problems with implementation. The main problem has been the claim by Experian, one of the credit bureaus, that it is illegal for a third-party company to set these on your behalf. So far, the courts have sided with Experian and we believe it is likely that LifeLock will have to stop this part of their service in the coming months. The other issue has been that it is actually quite easy to set fraud alerts yourself. You only need to set them at one bureau as each bureau must by law contact the other two bureaus to set fraud alerts with them once you have placed the alert with the first bureau. The only catch is the alerts only last 90 days so if you are going to set them yourself and want continuous coverage, you need to reset them every 90 days. To set fraud alerts yourself online we recommend you visit Equifax's simple online fraud alert form.
Finally, public record/black market monitoring covers fraud monitoring done outside of your credit file so is a bit of a catch-all for many types of monitoring. Since many types of identity theft do not require access to your credit file, this type of monitoring is very important. While it is theoretically possibly to do this type of monitoring yourself, in practice it is not practical to monitor the thousands of different public records databases or find and keep up to date on the black market sites and chat rooms where stolen information is traded.
If you are a member of one of our recommended identity theft services, call your service provider immediately and they will help you handle the situation. Similarly, if you are a member of one of our recommended credit monitoring services, call your service and they will help you take care of the situation. If you have not subscribed to one of our recommended services, visit the FTC's site for instructions.
A fraud alert requires each of the three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, to use "reasonable policies and procedures" to verify your identity before opening an account in your name. This usually means that they will call you to confirm that you did indeed request that a new account be opened. An initial fraud alert remains on your account for 90 days and thus must be re-requested every 90 days if you want to continue to have this protection. You can do this yourself with one of the credit bureas - you only need to set the alert with one bureau because they are legally required to set it with the other two. We like Equifax's online fraud alert form the best. LifeLock is the only remaining service that sets these for you and renews them for you every 90 days although they may have to stop providing this service if a recent judgment against them brought by Experian stands.
Some, but not all states allow you to place a credit freeze with the three credit bureaus. This means that no new creditors will be able to access your credit report for any reason. Any new account that you or a potential identity thief try to open will simply not be opened. In order to place this freeze, there is usually a fee of around $10.00 that must be paid to each credit reporting agency. So it would cost around $30.00 to completely freeze your credit. If you actually do want to obtain credit, you must unfreeze your credit, which may also have a cost associated with it. Then, to freeze it again incurs another charge. Obviously this is not very convenient but if you are currently a victim of identity theft or recently had personal information stolen, it may be a good option. TrustedID, one of our recommended services, provides an easy, automated way to freeze and unfreeze your credit with each bureau, although you would still have to pay the fee. ID Patrol from Equifax lets you freeze and unfreeze your Equifax credit file as often as you want at no additional charge.
TrustedID is the only identity theft protection service reviewed on NextAdvisor.com that offers a true family plan. This plan covers any family members that live at the same address, including your spouse, children, elderly parents or other family members.
LifeLock does not offer a true family plan, but customers are encouraged to enroll each of their family members during the initial sign up process. Each adult family member will be subject to the full individual price, but children can also be added for a lower price of just $22.50 per year or $2.25 per month, after NextAdvisor.com's exclusive 15% discount.
ProtectMyID does not offer a family plan, either, but they do offer regular subscribers an add-on plan for children called ChildSecure. For $6.95 per month, in addition to the base ProtectMyID adult subscription, ProtectMyID will closely monitor all of your enrolled children's credit information and alerts you if someone applies for credit or opens checking accounts using your child's personal information.
Most of the identity theft protection services reviewed on NextAdvisor.com guarantee a certain amount of money, usually up to $1,000,000, to cover the costs associated with restoring your identity. These guarantees do not, however, cover money that has been lost.
Since you are not legally responsible for paying any fraudulent debt accumulated by an identity thief, the only money that is likely to be lost would be funds withdrawn from your bank accounts. It is up to your bank or financial institution to restore money that has been stolen from your accounts. Many banks voluntarily offer zero-liability policies, which means that they are effectively promising to replace any stolen funds. Visa and MasterCard also offer zero-liability policies, which extend to debit cards as well as credit cards. The money in your bank account is also federally protected, to an extent. If your debit card is lost or stolen, your liability is limited to $50.00 in losses, as long as you report the loss to your bank within two business days. If you report the loss within 60 calendar days from the time your bank statement is mailed, your liability is limited to $500.00. Federal protections are a bit more generous in the event that your debit card number is stolen, as opposed to the card itself.
We contacted each of the identity theft protection services to find out which services offer assistance in Spanish — as well as English — and found out that all of our reviewed services that offer both identity theft protection and credit report monitoring also offer assistance in Spanish.
Here is how to connect to the Spanish-speaking representatives:
Identity Guard: To reach a Spanish-speaking representative of our top-rated credit monitoring and identity theft protection service, just call the main customer service line and select number one/option one on the phone from the home menu. Next select number two/option two on your phone and you'll be connected to a Spanish-speaking representative.
Equifax: Just call the main customer service number for Equifax and select the number two/option two, and you'll be connected to a Spanish-speaking representative.
TrustedID's family plan includes protection for your children. TrustedID safeguards children's identities by requesting their credit reports, Social Security statements and medical benefits statements to make sure no one else has been using their information, as well as scanning black market Internet sites to see if any of their information is compromised.
Identity Guard offers a service adult subscribers can add to their existing plan called Kid Sure. Kid Sure utilizes advanced scanning technology to search for the fraudulent use of your child's personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and public record data. It searches the Internet black market, pre-credit sources (such as utility and telecommunications) and thousands of databases (including public records) to help protect your child from identity theft.
IdentitySecure's plan includes protection assistance for up to 10 of your children's Social Security numbers. IdentitySecure scans credit header files and pre-credit data records where the existence of your child's Social Security number could indicate possible fraud. If any records associated with this information are found, you will be alerted via email and/or text.
ProtectMyID features add-on plans for regular subscribers called ChildSecure. ProtectMyID closely monitors all your enrolled children's credit information and alerts you if someone applies for credit or opens checking accounts using your child's personal information.
LifeLock also protects children's identities, allowing adult subscribers to add children's coverage for a low price.
Many identity theft protection services offer a service warranty or guarantee of around $1,000,000. This means that if your identity is stolen while you are a subscriber, the identity theft protection service will spend up to $1,000,000 in order to restore your identity. These guarantees do not cover funds that are stolen from you, only the out of pocket cost of restoring your identity. Identity recovery expenses can include such things as legal fees and, in certain cases, lost wages.
Most of the identity theft protection services reviewed on NextAdvisor.com guarantee a certain amount of money, usually up to $1,000,000, to cover the costs associated with restoring your identity. Identity recovery experts will advise you on your options and leverage their network of resources in order to help restore your identity. Each service approaches identity recovery and restoration differently, so it is important to research each service to understand what it does and does not cover in the unfortunate case that a subscriber does become a victim.
No, subscribing to an identity theft protection service will not negatively impact your credit score. When you authorize a lender to check your credit, it is called a "hard pull," which may cause your credit score to drop slightly. However, when you check your own credit, or an identity theft protection service checks your credit report on your behalf, this is known as a "soft pull," which does not hurt your score.
We thoroughly researched the leading identity theft protection services by signing up for them and then testing the available features. In addition, we researched each provider by reading related news and third-party research reports.
After our initial tests, we continue to use all the services and update our reviews as situations change. We also monitor the providers' sites for any service changes or specials.
We only include providers on our site that we believe offer a good value proposition. If there is a provider you know of that is not on our site, you can be fairly certain we did not rate that provider highly enough to include in our comparison. If you think we are missing a quality provider or have any other suggestions or comments, please visit our contact us page.
Disclosure: NextAdvisor.com is a consumer information site that offers free, independent reviews and ratings of online services. We receive advertising revenue from most of the services we review. Our editors thoroughly research and whenever possible test each service we review and offer their honest opinions about each one. We are independently owned and operated and all opinions expressed on this site are our own.