Consumers worldwide spent almost $7 billion last year on identity theft protection services, and that figure is expected to reach $24 billion by 2025. That’s a lot of fearful folks paying up to $360 a year to protect their personal data and privacy — some prompted by well-crafted, nerve-racking TV commercials, others by harsh realities: Following last year’s Equifax breach, one study found that nearly 20 percent of Americans froze their credit files, at a cost of $1.4 billion. Until then, only 2 to 3 percent had credit freezes.
Why pay? There are several free, easy and effective offerings that replicate the core services of some 60 different companies, minus the $5 to $30 monthly price tag. “Identity theft services offer some benefits but have limitations,” concludes a 2017 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Paid-for credit monitoring helps detect new fraudulent accounts in your name, but can’t prevent fraud of existing accounts, which happens after data breaches or when credit cards are stolen. Identity monitoring tracks misuse of personal data on illicit websites and public records, “but its effectiveness in mitigating identity theft is unclear,” says the GAO study. Offerings like identity restoration and insurance don’t always deliver anticipated outcomes. Whether you choose free or paid security services, this five-step approach will provide you with the best protection.
Paid monitoring tracks your file at one or more credit reporting bureaus, but you can also do this for free. At AnnualCreditReport.com, review your Equifax, Experian and TransUnion files each year, ideally with a different bureau every four months. Websites such as CreditSesame.com and CreditKarma.com (which also provides free ID monitoring) track credit bureau data.
To protect existing accounts, most banks and credit card providers offer free alerts of suspicious activity. Experian offers a no-cost dark-web scan — but expect an onslaught of pitches for financial products, including more extensive scans for a fee.
For more on how to protect yourself, go to AARP's Fraud Watch Network.
Thanks to a law passed by Congress earlier this year, credit freezes are now free to everyone — not just those who are over 65 or are past victims of identity theft. A credit freeze restricts access to your credit report unless you expressly allow it to be shared. Without it, identity thieves can’t open new accounts in your name.
You need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, 800-349-9960; Experian, 888-397-3742; and TransUnion, 888-909-8872) to enact, lift or temporarily “thaw” freezes when applying for credit, seeking a new job, or switching utility providers or insurance companies.
A password manager will store all your hard-to-remember codes in one place, simplifying your life. You can pay up to $50 per year for premium services, or use freebies like LastPass, Dashlane, KeePass and RoboForm. They will generate and remember, in an encrypted vault, all those complex and site-specific passwords you should have.
All you need is one master password to log in to the manager, and it fills your log-in credentials at each website with less-hackable password combinations of letters, numbers and symbols.
There are apps that will identify and block calls from robocallers, telemarketers and suspected scammers. Enhanced versions are about $3 a month, but Truecaller, Hiya and Call Control offer free apps for smartphones. AT&T and T-Mobile customers can get free “basic” protection, while Nomorobo is available at no charge for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) landlines.
To keep tabs on possible tax-refund fraud, request IRS transcripts each year after you get a refund, or the IRS cashes your check for underpaid taxes. To view and print your transcripts online, go to IRS.gov and use the Get Transcript tool. You can see the past three returns. Or ask for them by phone at 800-908-9946.
This free service summarizes the agency’s records of your tax returns and post-filing adjustments. Unrecognized filings may indicate your personal info was used for tax-related ID theft.