The first thing to know about identity theft protection services is that they don’t actually “protect” you from becoming a victim of ID theft. Sure, some offer tools and tips to help you reduce your digital footprint. But just like having AAA won’t reduce the odds of getting a flat tire, signing up for identity theft protection does not mean you are guaranteed to be less of a target.
So does that mean identity protection companies are a waste of money? Not necessarily. The trio of experts I interviewed during my research agree that education and preparation are the two best ways to minimize the damages of identity theft — and I found three top services that will help you do both.
The Best Identity Theft Protection Services
|Identity Theft Protection Services||Best For…||Recommended Plan|
|IdentityForce||Those who Haven’t had Their Identity Stolen Yet||UltraSecure + Credit ($19.95 per month)|
|LifeLock||Comprehensive Alert Options||LifeLock Ultimate Plus ($26.99 per month)|
|ID Watchdog||ID Theft Victims||Platinum ($20 per month)|
IdentityForce: Best for Those Who Haven’t Had Their Identity Stolen Yet
If you aren’t already a victim to ID theft, IdentityForce is the service for you. The website is clean and easy to understand, as are its lineup of comprehensive tools, including credit monitoring, personal data monitoring, and anti-keylogging software. However, it’s worth noting that the “Identity Health Score” tool outlines vulnerabilities, but doesn’t provide much in the way of actionable advice. So if you feel led to minimize your digital footprint (which is always a good idea), you’ll need to look elsewhere for step-by-step guidance.
There are a couple of things to think about when comparing IdentityForce to its competitors, ID Watchdog and LifeLock. First off, it allows for bank account transaction alerts. LifeLock offers this service as well, but ID Watchdog does not. (There’s a good chance your bank already provides a similar service, but it’s a great option to have if.) Secondly, IdentityForce is the easiest of the three to use. So if you want to spend as little time as possible getting your account rolling, it’s your best option.
IdentityForce offers two plans: UltraSecure and UltraSecure + Credit, which are $18 per month and $19.95 per month, respectively. As implied by the name, only one of those subscriptions offers credit monitoring… and it’s the more expensive one. Since credit card fraud accounts for a large majority of ID theft, UltraSecure + Credit is the only plan that really makes sense.
LifeLock: Best Comprehensive Alert Options
LifeLock would have been my number-one recommendation if not for its history of court battles with the FTC. In the latest episode (December of 2015) the company coughed up a $100 million settlement because it failed to secure personal data up to advertised standards. But if you can live with that, its comprehensive set of alerts are the best around.
With LifeLock, you get SMS, mobile app, and email alerts. There’s even an option for voice call alerts that put you in touch with a live representative who will then explain the significance of the notification. And the best part is that service runs 24/7. None of my other recommendations offers that many options, nor do they run 24/7 live assistance.
Pricing starts at $8.99 per month for LifeLock Standard and works its way up to $26.99 per month for LifeLock Ultimate Plus. Children can also be added for $5.99 a month per head. What’s most important to remember, however, is that LifeLock Ultimate Plus is the only plan that includes monthly credit score reporting. Compare that to ID Watchdog and IdentityForce, whose credit score tracking plans are respectively $5 and $10 cheaper per month.
ID Watchdog: Best for ID Theft Victims
It might not be a familiar name, but ID Watchdog is one of my top recommendations for one significant factor: It is the only company that helps people recover from pre-existing thefts. All other competitors only service thefts that take place during a membership period. That means ID theft victims can sign up for ID Watchdog mid-crisis and still receive help by way of power of attorney.
There is, however, one small caveat. In order to take advantage of the company’s “ID Rehab for Previously Existing Conditions” service, you’ll have to stomach a few fees: $80 per financial record error, $180 per civil court record error, and $280 per criminal court record error. That sounds like a lot of dough, but if the situation is caught early enough, it’s still possible to come out far cheaper than the alternative.
Another great plus to ID Watchdog is that its plans are consistently cheaper than its competitors — especially for families. As a single adult, its premium plan will cost you $18 a month (or $194 per year). For two adults, it rings in at $27 per month, but up to five kids can be added for only five dollars more ($32 a month). Compare that to LifeLock, which charges $5.99 per enrolled child.
Companies That Did Not Make the Cut
Some of the companies on my initial list were immediate no-gos simply because I could not verify whether they were legitimate businesses. A few more were strictly enterprise solutions, and several simply did stand out enough to warrant a recommendation. If you are interested in one of the services I cut, I recommend seriously vetting it before determining that it’s right choice.
EZShield, IDProtect, AllClear ID, CSID, IDT911, myIDcare, InfoArmor, CORE ID, IdentitySecure, TrustedID IDEssentials, myFICO, Control Your ID, Equifax Premier Plan, Identity Fraud, Privacy Guard, IDFreeze. Intelius, IDShield, EverSafe, ProtectMyID, Zander ID Protection
How I Found the Best Identity Theft Protection Services
I started with a list of 28 companies and ended up only recommending three of them. To get there, I evaluated each one’s products and services based on the criteria below.
Daily 3-Bureau Credit Reports
The earliest indicator that you may be sharing your identity with another person is often your credit report. The three US credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian) use different data to compile your scores, and not all financial institutions report your activity to each one. That’s why I valued services that offer daily reports from all three. Plus, credit bureaus receive information about people at different times, so one bureau may see an issue sooner than another.
Strong Credit-Monitoring Tools and Services
I favored services that track channels difficult for the average person to self-monitor, like public records, medical records, and the black market (ID theft services sweep chat rooms, blogs, and forums for your Social Security number, address, and other personal details). Services that look at credit cards and bank activity also got points, but since most banks and credit card companies already offer this type of monitoring for free, it wasn’t as critical.
It’s easy to get distracted by shiny features like social-media monitoring, but “your Social Security number is your most vulnerable piece of information,” says Adam Levin, co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911. Every company I recommended monitors those precious nine digits.
Responding quickly to identity theft can minimize the damage — the sooner you know that something’s been compromised, the sooner you can cancel your credit card or contact authorities.
If I’m paying for my identity to be monitored, I expect to be alerted quickly and efficiently. Some people prefer a phone call over a text; others an email over a call. All three of the companies I recommend offer text and email alerts, but LifeLock is the only one that offers mobile app notifications.
“Identity recovery” is the process you have to take to prove that actions or transgressions made in your name were not, in fact, made by you. And that process can be grueling: State Farm says it takes, on average, 60 hours to resolve. The FTC has a complete list of steps to take, but it nearly always involves talking to all three credit bureaus, your bank, local law enforcement, and institutions like the IRS. Sometimes it requires lawyers and investigators too — This American Life reported on the story of Jessamyn Lovell, whose identity theft fallout included court dates states away from where she lived.
That said, I chose companies that offer a power of attorney and $1 million insurance policy to help cover the costs of restoring your identity.
If you’re getting a service, you should consider one that actually assists you in restoring your credit and identity. — Steve J. Weisman, author of Identity Theft Alert
It’s important to note that if a service asks for limited power of attorney, it will be able to act on your behalf and get to work notarizing documents, making phone calls, filling out paperwork, and hand-holding you through the rest. If it doesn’t require power of attorney, the most it can really do is recommend the steps you need to take, and send you paperwork to fill out.
For example, Identity Guard can help get a stop put on your credit cards and liaise with your bank to get you up to $2,000 from your compromised accounts, but beyond that, its “victim assistance” is just a phone number you can call to ask for advice. Helpful? Sure. Real assistance? Not so much.
You’ll be in touch with customer service more often than a recovery team (and that’s a good thing). So, I vetted each service for its ability to answer my questions over the phone, live chat, and email. LifeLock’s customer support was the strongest of the contenders, primarily because the agents I spoke with really knew their stuff. We chatted about credit bureaus and I asked about the company’s cancellation policy (you can cancel anytime), and it felt like I was talking to someone who thoroughly understood what the company provides.
On the flip side was Identity Guard: a big name in the business with less-than-impressive customer support. I waited on hold for a few minutes (not a big deal), but while the agents I spoke with wanted to be helpful, it sounded like they were reading scripted answers. One didn’t know how much Identity Guard’s various plans cost; another didn’t know any details about the company’s victim assistance — something that’s included with all of its packages.
Identity Theft Basics
Identities are Stolen all the Time
“Identity theft” simply refers to the unauthorized use of a person’s identifying information. That can include your name, your Social Security number, street address, email address, credit card, medical records — even your likeness. And the unfortunate truth is that it happens all the time. Consider this: In 2014, there were 17.6 million victims of identity theft in the US. Another interesting fact is that according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 86 percent of those thefts were credit card or bank account fraud.
Identity thieves use all sorts of personal data against you; they might open a bank account or line of credit, hide from law enforcement, or get a job all as you (or a version of you). They might even go to the doctor as you (and forward you the bill) or file your taxes “on time,” snagging your refund before you do. (The IRS reported that it rejected 4.8 million suspicious return filings in 2015 alone.)
Sometimes your information is physically snatched, from your phone or wallet or computer, but most times it’s stolen electronically. In recent years, identity thieves have nabbed huge amounts of personal info from retail databases and sold it on the black market — the 2013 Target breach exposed as many as 70 million customers.
More often, though, computer software (like malware or ransomware) is hidden in email attachments or as seemingly benign files on the web and, once downloaded, collects logins and passwords. Likewise, phishing and other email scams try to trick users into giving up personal information voluntarily: A website will look just like the one you use to bank, only the login and password go directly to an identity bandit.
This is all to say: People in the business of stealing identities can be very creative, and they’re betting on your inattention.
Is identity theft protection worth it?
Oftentimes, credit card-monitoring services provided by one’s bank is enough to keep an eagle eye on your identity. In fact, in 2013 Consumer Reports advised to skip identity theft protection services entirely, citing statistics for the frequency of credit card fraud and the infrequency of all the other forms of identity theft. What Consumer Reports doesn’t take into account is the seriousness of those infrequent forms, and the sheer amount of work it takes to resolve them — I’m talking hours on the phone, over the course of months.
You need to be the equivalent of a professional manager of your credit or your identity. You need to build it, nurture it, manage it, and protect it. — Adam K. Levin, Co-Founder of IDT911 and Credit.com
In his rebuttal piece to Consumer Reports, Levin agrees that some companies charge opportunistic rates for services you might already have from your bank or credit card company for free. Robert Minniti, a certified forensic accountant and certified fraud investigator concurs: “One of the problems with these programs is that they’re calling themselves identity theft protection, but they’re really credit monitoring services.”
Indeed, many of the so-called protection services offer nothing more than a simple credit monitoring service tied up in a fancy bow. However, my top recommendations offer a variety of features (like darknet surveillance, court-record scanning, and lost-wallet protection) that do help reduce the time and effort required to pick up the pieces after a theft.
How to Self-Monitor Your Identity
The best identity theft protection services aren’t cheap. They are going to cost a couple hundred bucks a year — and most of us (hopefully!) won’t even use the features that make them so appealing. Just like a monitored home security system, you’re paying for peace of mind as much as the service itself.
DIY identity theft monitoring can be effective and can save you money. You need to know what to look for, need to be looking regularly, and you need to be prepared to untangle any damage completely on your own. As Minniti points out, “For the most part, people don’t have the discipline to self-monitor; they forget about it. They don’t do it on a regular basis, and that’s where a service can come in handy.” Even so, incorporating some basic steps into your routine can help you feel more secure:
Check all three of your credit reports every year.
All Americans are guaranteed access to their credit reports once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com; those reports show all of the open accounts that are associated with your name. Setting a yearly calendar reminder is a good way to stay on top of pulling them regularly, and staggering them throughout the year will help compensate for the coverage you’d get with a service, which typically pulls monthly or quarterly reports.
If you do suspect some sort of fraud (say your wallet was stolen or you’ve been notified of some sort of security breach), place a 90-day alert on your credit files and get the free report that comes with it. These alerts will ensure a business will verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. You can renew the alert every 90 days to make sure you’re safe in the long term.
Consider placing a freeze on those reports too.
If you’re not planning on doing anything that will require an inquiry on your credit anytime soon — applying for credit cards or loans, signing a new lease, opening a new bank account, etc. — it might be a good idea to freeze your reports.
One of the best things people can do to protect themselves is to put a credit freeze on their credit reports. — Steve J. Weisman, Author of Identity Theft Alert
To do this, call each credit bureau and your banks. As a forewarning, it’s a bit time-consuming and will cost around $10 per freeze (and another $10 per unfreeze). But it leaves no room for funny business with your finances because you’ll be contacted anytime there’s an inquiry on your credit. This is also a good protective step for senior citizens, children, and dependent adults.
Actually read all your mail.
Examine your health insurance statements when they arrive to see if you’ve been charged for an appointment or procedure you didn’t receive. Take note if you’ve stopped receiving notifications (either paper or electronic) from your banks, utilities, loan providers, or credit card companies: Identity thieves will most often file for a change of address if they have access to your financials to keep you out of the loop.
Likewise, if you get any password-reset emails, don’t ignore them off-hand; a notice might mean somebody has been trying to log into your accounts.
Run a background check on yourself.
While most of us aren’t able to self-monitor black market sites that traffic identities and financial information, background checks are typically free and will highlight any erroneous charges. If you find some and are going it alone, you’ll have to contact the authorities to dispute them.
Look into identity theft insurance.
It acts the same way as the insurance provided by an identity theft protection service — if you spend money recovering your identity, insurance will cover it. Your home and renters insurance policies might already include this as an add-on option; likewise, some employers add it to their benefits bundle.
5 Tips to Help Prevent Identity Theft
Identity theft is a tricky crime to predict: Wealthy individuals with lots of accounts aren’t necessarily targeted more often than someone with, say, a low checking account balance or a dinged-up credit score. And, Weisman explains, “As technology improves, the problems with identity theft will, unfortunately, also increase.” Levin agrees, “The reality is that everywhere you go, everything you do is being tracked, gathered, stored, disseminated. With all the things out there collecting our data, we have to focus on what I call the 3 Ms: Minimize the risk of exposure; Monitor accounts; and Manage the damage.”
The steps for prevention are all pretty obvious and you’ve likely heard some version of them before. But they’re worth a reminder — especially if you’re not already following the advice.
Be careful with sensitive documentation
“The least amount of information you can carry, you should,” says Minniti. That personal information includes your Social Security card, medical ID cards, credit card statements, bank account numbers, tax documents — even your driver’s license. Don’t carry them unless you have to and make them difficult to find in your home too.
Use strong passwords
Don’t use personal information like names, birthdates, and addresses as passwords. $ecuR!tY!! is a much more complicated password than “security.” And remember: If you can Google your name and find out your high school mascot, your mom’s maiden name, or the street you grew up on, those don’t make great “Forgot your password?” prompts.
I also recommend taking this a step further by using a password manager. There are several great options out there (like 1Password and Dashlane) that generate incredibly strong passwords and keep them all accounted for in an encrypted vault. Some can even update weak passwords for you automatically.
Don’t click on mystery links
If it’s a brand-new email notification your bank has never sent before, proceed with caution.
Never authenticate yourself to unknown sources
“Theoretically, they know who you are. That’s why they’re contacting you,” says Levin. You shouldn’t need to, say, rattle off the last four digits of your SSN to anyone who’s calling you.
Master your smartphone’s security features
“Phones are data storage devices, not just communication devices,” Levin explains. “Have a complex PIN number. Have it shut off faster. Opt in to remote data wiping.” Apple iPhones equipped with Find My iPhone can remotely wipe all data off of a stolen phone, and Google Android phones with Android Lost perform a similar function. Back your phone up regularly so that you can wipe without remorse!
Identity theft is real and it’s serious — there’s just no way to sugarcoat it. To stay on top of all the ways your identity could be compromised, you need to monitor it regularly. Too much for you to take on? That’s where identity theft protection services come in, and my top picks have the most comprehensive set of tools available. Do some digging and figure out which is the best fit for you.
My top recommendations: ID Watchdog, IdentityForce, and LifeLock.