Identity Theft Protection FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Identity Theft Protection

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What is identity theft?

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States. Research published in 2017 from Javelin Strategy & Research estimates that more than 15 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, etc.) and other financial institutions may cut off your credit accounts or access to new credit until your good name is restored. Many people have even been arrested and jailed because an identity thief committed crimes in their name.

How does identity theft happen?

Identity thieves can get access to your personal information in a myriad of different ways, including (but not limited to):

  • 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
  • Phishing
  • Intercepting or stealing 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

How can I prevent identity theft?

Unfortunately, there is no tried-and-true way to prevent identity theft from happening. Even if you practiced the highest security standards with your personal information, data breaches have increased in frequency and spread people's information far and wide. There are things you can do to decrease the likelihood you'll become a victim or alert you to identity theft soon after it has happened, such as:

  • Carefully monitor your credit reports 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 pre-approved credit offers, make sure you destroy them rather than tossing them directly into the trash.
  • Don't carry your social security card, 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, etc.) to be sure there is no fraudulent activity.
  • Never give out personal information over the phone, text message or email unless you are absolutely sure who you are speaking or writing 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 (also known as phishing). If you think the email is legitimate, type in the web address and log into your account yourself.

Signing up for one of our recommended identity theft protection services is a good way to ensure that you've got someone on your side if the worst should happen. 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 and other sources 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.

What do thieves do once they steal my identity?

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 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 might 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. Another growing form of identity theft, medical identity theft involves, using your information to make insurance claims for treatment. 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.

What should I do if I think I am a victim of identity theft?

If you have an active membership with an identity theft protection service, log into your account to contact them immediately and take advantage of their expert assistance with the reporting and recovery process. You may need to file a police report, in addition to contacting creditors to report that fraud has been committed in your name. Having someone on your side to help walk you through the process and ensure you've followed all the steps necessary can be great asset at a time when you may be feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed. Alternatively, you can also visit the FTC's official identity theft website, IdentityTheft.gov, for checklists and guides to reporting and dealing with identity theft .

What type of identity theft protection is right for me?

Identity theft protection can comprise of different types of fraud monitoring, credit report monitoring and public record/black market monitoring, as well as identity theft assistance. Most services offer some combination of all of this, though some go more in-depth with credit report monitoring than others, and some monitor more data points than others. Credit report monitoring is the most well known and established type of monitoring, and also one you have no way of doing yourself for free. Credit report monitoring is effective to alert you when a new account or inquiry shows up on one of your three credit reports. We recommend choosing a service which monitors all three credit bureaus, as only monitoring one means accounts could be opened that are only reported to another bureau, rendering your monitoring ineffective.

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 feasible to monitor the thousands of different public records databases yourself, or find and keep up to date on the black market sites, file sharing services and chat rooms where stolen information is traded, bought and sold. Some identity theft protection services monitor only basic information, while others keep track of all kinds of data points down to whether someone has used your information to register for the sex offender registry or an application for a non-credit loan (e.g., a payday loan) has been submitted in your name.

One of the biggest choices most people will face in choosing an identity theft protection service is whether or not they want coverage for only themselves, or if they need coverage for their families, as well. Some services offer the ability to monitor basic information for your children (e.g., social security number and name) for an additional cost per month. Considering how fast child identity theft is growing in the U.S., this can be a really good thing for parents or guardians.

Ultimately, it's a matter of how much information you want monitored, what kinds of resources you want, whether you need something specific (such as child monitoring) and what you're willing to pay, as all identity theft protection services range in price.

Can I protect my entire household with a family plan?

Your best option to protect your entire household with a single plan is Identity Guard because it offers a family plan that protects two adults as well as up to 15 children under the age of 18 in the same household. This plan costs $24.99/month and comes with a 30-day free trial. Visit our Identity Guard review to learn more about what this plan offers.

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 $59.39/year with an annual plan or $5.39/month with a month-to-month plan, after NextAdvisor's exclusive 10% discount. All of LifeLock's plans also come with a 30-day risk-free trial that allows you to request a refund if you aren't satisfied within the initial 30-day time period. Check out our LifeLock Ultimate Plus review to learn about the individual plan options, LifeLock's protection and more.

How can I protect my children from identity theft?

Child identity theft is a growing problem in the U.S., so parents and guardians may want to protect their kids' information as well as their own. Several of the services we review have options for doing so:

  • Identity Guard has a family plan that protects children under its kID Sure monitoring technology. kID Sure monitors for your child's information on criminal records, DMV records, utilities records, as well as scans for social security number exposure on the Internet black market to help protect your child from identity theft. Up to 15 children can be added under this plan.
  • LifeLock® also protects children's identities, allowing adult subscribers to add children's coverage to their accounts. LifeLock Junior™ monitors for your child's information on applications for credit cards, utilities, wireless services, mortgages, retail credit, auto loans and payday loans for suspicious activity. It also monitors children's social security numbers to verify that they aren't associated with any credit files, as well as scans more than 10,000 criminal websites on the Internet black market to verify that your child's data is not being sold.
  • IDShield has a family plan which covers two adults within the same household as well as up to 8 dependents. Monitored information for children includes each child's name, birth date and social security number, and email addresses and phone numbers can also be added within the primary adult's account.

Can money lost due to identity theft be recovered?

Most of the identity theft protection services we review guarantee a certain amount of money, usually up to $1,000,000, to cover the costs associated with restoring your identity. Not all of these guarantees will, unfortunately, cover money that has been lost. However, some services do cover this cost — LifeLock Ultimate Plus®, for instance, reimburses stolen funds up to $1,000,000.

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. However, beyond that you might be liable for all money lost to the identity thief. Federal protections are a bit more generous in the event that your debit card number is stolen, as opposed to the card itself.

How do the ID theft insurance and guarantees work?

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 traditionally 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. However, some services have recently begun to offer compensation for stolen funds. It's important to read the terms and services to get the full picture of what a particular service's policy provides before signing up.

Will an ID theft protection service help me restore my identity if I do become a victim?

The true value of an identity theft protection service lies in the assistance provided to help restore your identity and recover from the theft. 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. Although much of the assistance involves things you could do yourself, such as contacting creditors, it can be a huge asset to have someone on your side helping you check items off your identity theft recovery to-do list and helping you cut through some of the red tape.

What is a fraud alert?

A fraud alert requires that each of the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — to require creditors to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. You can place a fraud alert for free at any time, whether you've been a victim of identity theft or not. If your information was exposed in a data breach, for example, you might consider placing a fraud alert. To do so, you only need to contact one of the three credit bureaus and make the request, which is usually possible by calling them or filling out an online form. The credit bureau will inform the other two, so that the alert will be set for all three of them. Fraud alerts remain valid for 90 days, and then you must re-request them. Another more permanent option is a credit freeze.

What is a credit freeze?

Placing a credit freeze effectively "freezes" your credit and prevents new creditors from accessing your credit report for any reason. Any new account that a potential identity thief tries to open will simply not be opened because the creditor won't be able to view your credit to make a decision. This also means that you will need to temporarily lift the freeze if you want to apply for a loan, rent an apartment or do some other action which requires someone to access your credit. In some cases, you may be able to temporarily lift a credit freeze for a specific creditor. To place a credit freeze, you will likely need to call the credit bureau.

Top Identity Theft Protection

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Bottom line: Most complete identity theft protection service we reviewed; 3-bureau credit report monitoring; credit report/score updates every quarter; $3 discount & free 30-day trial
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Bottom line: Comprehensive credit and identity monitoring (with Premium membership) and unique Experian CreditLock feature combined with competitive pricing and an easy-to-use website
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Bottom line: Thorough identity theft protection and 3-bureau credit report monitoring; annual 3-bureau credit reports and scores; monthly Equifax credit scores; somewhat costly even with 10% discount for the first year
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Bottom line: Solid credit protection with monthly credit report/score updates as well as social security and financial account monitoring; 30-day trial for $1; includes computer protection software from Norton
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Bottom line: Strong identity monitoring paired with comprehensive, 3-bureau FICO score monitoring; on the pricey side
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Bottom line: Valuable identity theft protection and customer support for an affordable price, yet lacks in terms of credit report monitoring; 10% discount for the first year
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Bottom line: Complete restoration assistance from Kroll Advisory Solutions; frustrating user experience and poor customer service; limited credit monitoring

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