Ask The Expert: What The Heck Is “Enhanced Identity Theft Protection”?

Question: A year ago this very month, my mom got “free credit monitoring and identity theft protection” from Target because she shopped there when that big data breach happened.

I guess Target offered it as a PR move, but for the past 12 months, my mom has been bugging me to pay for the service on my own — because she’s convinced it kept her from being ripped off. Thing is, she doesn’t even know how it works, and when I Google the topic, I get a lot of noise.

For instance, what the heck is “enhanced identity theft protection”? How is that different from “daily credit monitoring”? These things cost under $10 a month to more than $25. Help! I don’t want to get ripped off paying for something so I don’t get ripped off.

— Mike in Las Vegas

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastYour mother was smart. After the big Target data breach in December 2013 — when cyber-crooks had a chance to steal 40 million credit and debit card numbers — Target offered the free credit monitoring and identity theft protection you mentioned.

Sure, Target did that because, as you say, it was a good PR move. It was also a responsible move, because it gave shoppers peace of mind. If those crooks had tried to actually use your mother’s credit or debit card, the free service would have notified her immediately, and she’d be able to quickly put a stop to it.

When it comes to explaining how these services work and the differences between them, things can get complicated. Let’s simplify them.

 “Credit monitoring” vs. “identity theft protection”

What’s the difference? Not much, really. Cut through the terminology, and nearly all of these companies offer the same services:

  • monitoring activity in your accounts every day
  • notifying you of account activity via email or text alerts
  • placing fraud alerts or freezes on your credit reports
  • deleting your name from marketing mailing list
  • offering ID theft insurance, usually $25,000 to $1 million

The term “enhanced” is just a marketing term. Basically, you’re paying more for a few more services above.

For instance, the service I recommend is called Credit Power, and if you look at their pricing plans, the “Protect Plus” and “Protect Max” categories would be considered enhancedLifeLock, the best-known service, calls theirs “Advantage” and “Ultimate Plus.”

I wrote about these two services a couple of months ago (What’s The Best Credit Score Monitoring Service?) but if you don’t want to read the details, here’s the bullet:

Because these services do the same thing, cheaper is better. That’s why I like Credit Power. It’s not as well known as LifeLock, but it also doesn’t have a national advertising campaign to support, so its prices are the lowest.

You can do this yourself

I hope this helps, Michael. Here’s something else you should know: Most of what these services do, you can do on your own. to quote from the Federal Trade Commission:

Many people find it valuable and convenient to pay a company to keep track of their financial accounts, credit reports, and personal information. Other people choose to do this on their own for free. Before you pay for a service, evaluate it and its track record before you pay any fees.

I compare it to doing your own taxes or hiring an accountant to do them for you. If your taxes are straightforward enough and you have the time, why pay someone else?

However, if you’re busy and you have multiple credit and debit accounts that you use frequently, it’s worth the peace of mind, free time, and ID theft insurance.

Whatever you do, Michael, I urge you to read How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft? That was a question from a reader who already had his identity stolen. I look forward to the day when no Debt.com reader ever has to ask me a question like that again.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

 

Ask The Expert: Why Isn’t Credit Monitoring Free? And What’s The Best Credit Score Monitoring Service?

Question: Last week, you answered a question from a man who had his credit card stolen. That happened to me — twice in the past few years. Your advice was OK, but I saw an ad on TV for Life Lock. I’m wondering if I should pay for a service that will check these things for me. Are they worth it?

Actually, I want to know why they cost money at all. I learned from reading this website that the law says I can get free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Why isn’t credit monitoring free too?

— Patricia in Oklahoma

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastLife Lock and other companies are known as credit monitoring services. For a fee, they monitor your account with one or more of the three national credit agencies every day. (Those are Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.)

They also offer a slew of other services. You can check your credit report whenever you want, instead of just once a year. You can also GET your credit score, which is different than a credit report, and which isn’t free at all (although more places are finally offering this as a perk, like the Discover card.)

If someone tries to steal your identity, these services notify you pronto. Here’s what they can’t do: Stop the theft before it happens. Like the name says, they monitor. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t religiously check your credit card statement each month, this is vital — because waiting to report credit card fraud can cost you.

Before we talk price and value, there’s one big advantage to these services besides fraud protection. If you’re trying to rebuild your credit after a tough time — divorce, layoff, or medical condition — these services can help. Here’s how.

Now let’s talk cost.

Life Lock is the best-known service because they spend the most on advertising. Because of that, Life Lock is also one of the priciest services. What’s not well known is that many of these services are exactly the same. Many use the same third-party software to monitor your credit, much like various restaurants buy desserts from outside bakeries. Their prices may vary, but you’re eating the same chocolate cake.

That’s why Debt.com partnered with Credit Power. As Debt.com’s founder, I searched for the best service at the cheapest price. Life Lock charges $10 a month for its basic service, $20 for its midrange service, and $30 for its premium service.

Meanwhile, Credit Power offers the same services for $7, $17, and $25.

If you want to know more about credit monitoring, we have an entire section on the topic in our Education Center. If you want to know more about Credit Power, fill out the form at the top right of this page, and we’ll send you details.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

Ask The Expert: How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft?

Question: So I had my identity stolen last month. Never knew what that really meant before. Here’s what it meant for me: Someone in Roanoke, Virginia, was buying sneakers and TVs on my credit card.

I was lucky, though. The credit card company called to tell me. So I didn’t get charged, but I did have to stop using my card until I got a new one sent to me.

I have no idea how the hell someone stole my credit card number. Now I’m freaked out it’ll happen again. Anything I can do to prevent it? How can I protect myself from identity theft?

— Andrew in Philadelphia

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastYou’re not alone, Andrew. Just last week, I saw a poll of 1,000 Americans from a security company called RSA. It said, “Nearly 50 percent have been a victim of a data breach.”

That’s a scary number. The next number was even scarier: “45 percent say even with all of the retail breaches, they have not changed their behavior when using credit and debit cards.”

What’s so frustrating is that protecting you identity is quite simple. While many topics covered here on Debt.com can require some time and brainpower – from learning about your retirement saving options to saving on your student loans – these solutions are easy.

Identifying the solutions

I don’t know how your credit card number was stolen, Andrew, but I can share three simple ways to lower the chances it happens again…

  1. Shred those paper statements. We live in a tech era, but criminals make money by thinking old-school. Your monthly credit card statements contain all the information they need to run up big bills in your name.
  2. Check those statements. You were lucky, Andrew, that your credit card company recognized a suspicious pattern of spending. The best companies do that to protect both you and themselves. However, no system is foolproof. Review your statements each month to ensure you made all those purchases.
  3. Don’t sign blank receipts. If you’re ordering take-out from a restaurant and there’s a space for a tip, draw a line through it. Some of the hardest credit card theft to notice is the smallest.

If you do spot a problem, call the number on the back of your credit card right away. While many Americans complain about poor customer service in many areas, I’ve seldom heard any horror stories from credit card users either reporting or inquiring about fraud. These companies are serious about catching bad guys, and they desperately want your help.

Other kinds of ID theft

Of course, ID theft comes in many flavors. That’s why you should never carry your Social Security card in your wallet or give your Social Security number over the phone to anyone you don’t know. It’s why you should frequently change your online passwords and password-protect your smartphone and laptop.

If you want more advice on preventing ID theft — from simple tips all the way up to credit monitoring services — Debt.com has dedicated an entire section of its Education Center to the topic. As always, all the advice is vetted by experts and totally free.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

How to Report Identity Theft

Identify identity theft so you can restore security.

Identify identity theft and take action

There are many different types of identity theft to worry about. Whether it’s your Social Security number or your medical records, criminals are always trying to get to your personal information. Protecting your identity is your first priority. But when identity theft strikes, you need to act quickly to prevent further damage. The less you have to fight over money and deal with paperwork, the better. This guide will help you report ID theft if you become a victim.

Step 1: Contact the host of the account

If you know that access to a specific account was stolen, the first step is to contact the company you have the account with and report identity theft.

This can mean calling your bank, your credit card company, or any other account host that could have compromised information. Medical identity theft requires calling hospitals and your insurance company, and social media identity theft means reporting to the site itself. They’ll suggest steps to secure your account, including canceling and replacing your card. Acting quickly also limits your liability for charges you didn’t make.

TIP:

Have the fraudulent information ready. For example, if you are reporting fraud to your bank, pull up information about the fraudulent purchase(s) on your computer so you don’t have to search for the information during the call.  

Estimated Time: 1 hour, plus time to follow the company’s directions

 

Step 2: Place a fraud alert

Place an initial fraud alert on your credit reports.

Fraud alerts make it more difficult for credit to be opened in your name. Go to the website of any of the three big credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion — and request one. It’s free, and the information will be shared between all three.

A fraud alert won’t necessarily prevent someone from using the accounts you already have, however. That’s why the next step is to create an identity theft report.

TIP:

This is the first step in reporting identity theft. Do this as soon as you know you are a victim. The sooner, the better, and the safer your money and information will be.

Estimated Time: 30 minutes

Identity theft is serious. Debt.com can help you seriously protect your identity.

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Step 3: Create an identity theft report

Submit an identity theft complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

IdentityTheft.gov is where you report identity theft to the FTC. The FTC identity theft report will generate something called an identity theft affidavit, which you use to file a police report with local law enforcement.

Having both of these documents makes it much easier to stop and reverse the damage from identity theft. They’ll enable you to get a 7-year fraud alert on your credit file (initial fraud alerts only last 90 days, but are renewable) and with that two free credit reports from each CRA per year. Normally you only get one per year; these two reports are on top of that.

TIP:

You’ll also have an easier time removing fraudulent information from your credit reports and stopping companies trying to collect fraud-based debts when you complete this step and step 4.  

Estimated Time: 1-2 hours to submit information for the report

NOTE: Due to the government shutdown, IdentityTheft.gov is not currently running.

 

Step 4: File a police report

Report your case of identity theft to the police.

If you know who the thief is, an affected company wants you to file an official police report, or the thief has used your personal information in interactions with law enforcement, you will need to file a police report. This means taking a trip to your local police station with the right paperwork in hand. You will need:

  • A government photo ID, such as a Driver’s License
  • Proof of address
  • Your FTC Identity Theft Report
  • All other proof that could help the investigation

TIP:

Ask for a copy of the police report for your own records. Then review how to prevent identity theft to avoid new issues in the future.

Estimated Time: 2 hours to report identity theft to the police  

Concerned about identity theft? Try Debt.com’s identity theft protection free for 30 days.

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How to Prevent Identity Theft

What you should do to protect your personal information from identity thieves.

worst part about fraud

There’s no foolproof way to avoid identity theft — it can happen simply because you shopped at Target — but there are a lot of ways to prove you’re no fool.

The sooner you learn to guard your identity, the better.

Fact: The highest reported age group for identity theft is 20-29.

Here’s a partial list of strategies to keep your identity safe:

Offline

  • Don’t keep your Social Security card in your wallet. Make a copy of your Medicare card and cross out all but the last four digits, then keep that version in your wallet except when you need the original at the doctor’s office.
  • Don’t give up personal information just because someone asks — even at work, school, or the doctor’s office. First find out if they need it and what happens if you don’t give it, and what they do to protect your information.
  • Don’t give out personal information over the phone or Internet unless you initiated contact and need to verify your identity.
  • Before trading in or dumping your electronics, make sure you’ve deleted all personal information from them.
  • Shred receipts, credit card offers, insurance forms, checks, bank statements, and any other paperwork with personal or financial details that you no longer need.
  • Be in the habit of collecting your mail promptly, and have your mail held if you plan to be out of town.
  • Keep your financial records in a safe place at home – digital records too.

Online

  • Avoid clicking on links and attachments in email from businesses and people you don’t know.
  • Avoid accessing sensitive information while on public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Don’t use the same password on multiple websites.
  • Regularly change passwords. Consider using password manager software like LastPass so you don’t have to keep track of them all.
  • Put password protection on your laptop and smartphone, and don’t leave them unattended in public. Always log out of your accounts when using someone else’s computer.