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Credit monitoring services: Pros, cons and how to pick one

Financial experts divided on whether they're worth the cost

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If you want to keep tabs on your credit report to catch errors, improve your score or keep an eye out for fraud, you might be tempted to sign up for a credit monitoring service.

A credit monitoring service tracks your credit report at one or more of the three major credit bureaus and immediately sends you an alert if any change or suspicious activity occurs.

Personal finance experts are divided about whether these services are worth the cost, but many say signing up can help some consumers. But it's important to be able to distinguish exactly what these services offer, how much they cost and what you can expect in return for your payment.

Here are some tips to help you navigate the pros and cons of credit monitoring services:      

Credit monitoring 101
Basic credit monitoring services usually track your credit reports at one, two or all three of the major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- and send you an e-mail, text message or letter, depending on your preference, if there's an inquiry or other activity. Many also offer unlimited access to your credit report from at least one of the bureaus, tracking of your credit score, telephone help with fraud resolution and even reimbursement of some out-of-pocket expenses incurred while trying to resolve identity theft or other fraud.

"Credit monitoring services can be helpful for spotting certain problems, such as if somebody opens a new credit account in your name using your stolen information," says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. "But they don't necessarily alert you to every type of identity theft you could encounter. For example, if somebody is using your stolen personal information to get a job or a cell phone -- something that wouldn't necessarily be reported to a credit reporting agency -- then credit monitoring isn't going to pick that up."

Here is a sampler of the offerings of six credit monitoring services, comparing their features and costs (story continues below).

For that reason, more providers have begun offering broader identity monitoring services that typically include credit monitoring along with other features -- such as monitoring of public records, databases and websites for use of your personal information.

According to Tom Harkins, chief strategy officer for Secure Identity Systems, which offers both types of services, total identity monitoring might check real estate transactions, court records, telephone accounts and even hunting or fishing licenses to look for fraudulent use of the consumer's name, Social Security number or other personal data. Harkins says: "Total identity monitoring goes wider and deeper to protect the consumer."

Does credit monitoring pay off?
Consumer advocates don't all agree on whether credit monitoring -- which typically costs $10 to $15 or more per month ($120 to $180 a year) -- is worth the money. Some say it's an extra layer of protection that's smart to have, while others say it's unnecessary.

Consumers can monitor their own accounts to catch errors or look for fraud and also can take other free or low-cost steps to protect themselves, but credit monitoring might make sense for someone who has been the victim of identity theft or fears their personal information has been compromised, says Suzanne Martindale, an attorney and associate policy analyst for Consumers Union.

"Monitoring seems more appropriate for someone who has reason to suspect their credit information has been at risk or has been exposed; for example, if you got a notice there was a data breach and your Social Security number might be flying around," Martindale says.

Questions to ask before you sign up for a credit monitoring service

1. Does the service monitor your credit report at one, two or all three bureaus. How are the reports monitored?

2. How are alerts sent to you, and what activity would trigger an alert?

3. Does the service allow you unlimited access to your credit reports? Would you have access to reports from all three bureaus?

4. Does the service offer you unlimited access to your credit score(s)? From one bureau or all three?

5. Does the service include broader identity monitoring? If so, what types of databases are monitored? How many are monitored?

6. If you are alerted to a problem, what kind of help is offered? During what hours can you reach an agent by phone? What kind of expertise do agents have?

7. If identity theft insurance is included, exactly what costs would it cover and what would be excluded? Legal fees? Telephone bills? Postage? Time off from work?

8. Are other services included? Wallet loss assistance? Computer protection? What exactly do these services include?

9. What payment methods are accepted? (Many services take credit or debit cards only.)

10. Is there a free trial period? What is the cancellation policy, and how much notice is required?

Sources: The Identity Theft Council, the Consumers Union, The Consumer Federation of America 

Do-it-yourself alternative
Instead of shelling out cash for credit monitoring, she says, consumers could simply get their free annual credit reports from the three major bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com, and closely watch activity on their bank and credit card accounts. A consumer who wants further protection, she says, could place a 90-day fraud alert on his credit files or even pay a one-time fee to enact a credit freeze -- which prevents creditors from accessing the credit reports until the consumer lifts the freeze.

Says Martindale: "If you pay $10 to place the freeze, then another $10 to temporarily lift it when you want to buy a new car or something, at least you're not paying a fee every month, which can really rack up over time."

In addition to cost, another possible issue with credit monitoring services is the existence of so-called fragmented files, experts say. According to Secure Identity Systems' Harkins, criminals commonly try to evade detection by using only a part of someone's identity to sign up for an account or obtain credit -- and that could create a whole new file that probably would not show up right away in the victim's main credit file -- and so would not trigger an alert. "As a consumer, you hope when you're getting your credit information you're getting the full picture, but that's not always the case," he says.

Some experts swear by credit monitoring services, however. The executive director of the Identity Theft Council, Neal O'Farrell, says he started using a credit monitoring service about six years ago, and his organization partners with a provider that offers these services. "I recently was at Best Buy and applied for a store credit card because they had an in-store promotion," O'Farrell says. "When I got home, I already had an alert notifying me there was a credit inquiry. It's comforting."

Shopping for a credit monitoring service
Credit monitoring services typically are offered through banks or credit unions, by credit bureaus or directly from companies that provide the services. Experts recommend to thoroughly check out the provider before signing up for any credit monitoring service and offer the following tips for finding a reputable service provider.

  • Check to see if the company checks your credit reports from all three credit bureaus. Some only allow you access to just one, and many times information that is included on one credit report does not appear on the other.
  • Look at how long the company has been in business and what kind of security expertise it has -- and be wary of companies that say very little about its background on its website, O'Farrell says. "Do your homework on the company. It's an unusual industry, and there are a lot of shady characters and opportunists."
  • Steer clear of companies that make over-the-top promises. Grant warns: "Watch out for claims that they will prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft -- that's something that should send up a red flag since no legitimate company will make that claim."
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general to see if any complaints have been filed against the credit monitoring service provider, the Federal Trade Commission advises.
  • Shop around, but consider going with a brand name you know or an institution where you already do business, suggests Mike Schenk, senior economist for the Credit Union National Association. "It's always a good idea to go to someone you trust -- if you've had a relationship with a financial institution for a while and feel they operate in your best interest and the fees they charge are fair and transparent, that would be a good place to start," Schenk says.

Many service providers offer multiple options in credit and identity monitoring, and experts say it's important to determine which features you want and make sure the service you are considering offers them. On the other hand, make sure you're not signing up for services you don't need.          

Schenk says: "It's a big business, so there are a lot of providers of these services out there that generate a lot of income by selling consumers protection that they don't really need or levels of protection that are far in excess of what they need."

See related: Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze, Can you freeze an individual credit card?, Protecting your children from identity theft, 10 things you should know about identity theft

Compare the costs and features of top credit monitoring services:

 

 

Service: Triple Advantage Credit Monitoring

 

Company: Experian

 

Cost: $14.95/month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Experian, Equifax, TransUnion

 

How often monitored: Daily monitoring of reports at all three bureaus

 

Unlimited access to credit reports? Unlimited access to Experian report only

 

Access to credit score? Unlimited access to Experian score only

 

Additional services:

Credit score tracking with e-mail notification when score changes

Access to ID theft/fraud resolution 24 hours a day

Ability to dispute incorrect credit report information online

 

ID theft insurance:

$50,000 insurance for reimbursement of some expenses related to ID theft

 

Trial period: Seven-day trial period before billing begins

 

 

 

Service: zendough

 

Company: TransUnion

 

Cost: $14.95/month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Experian, Equifax, TransUnion

 

How often monitored: Daily

 

Unlimited access to credit reports? Unlimited access to reports from all three bureaus

 

Access to credit score? Offers VantageScore, a score based on the collaboration of the three major credit bureaus

 

Additional services:

ID theft risk assessment

Access to ID theft case manager

Online finance tracking and management tools

 

ID theft insurance: Up to $25,000 for expenses related to identity theft

 

Trial period: Seven-day free trial

 

 

 

Service: Equifax Complete

 

Cost: $16.95/month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion

 

How often monitored: Daily, with alerts sent within 24 hours of a change

 

Unlimited access to credit reports? Unlimited access to Equifax report only

 

Access to credit score? Unlimited access to Equifax score and once-per-year access to scores from Experian and TransUnion

 

Additional services:

Access to fraud/identity theft resolution help 24/7

Ability to dispute incorrect credit report information online

Interactive score simulator to estimate how changes you make would affect credit scores

Automatic fraud alert feature that will renew a fraud alert on your file every 90 days

 

ID theft insurance: $1 million for some expenses related to identity theft

 

Trial period? Sometimes has a special offer for a 30-day free trial

 

 

 

 

Service: Identity Guard Watchful Eye; Identity Guard Extra Caution; Identity GuardTotal Protection

 

Company: Intersections Inc.

 

Cost: $9.99 / $14.99/  $17.99 /month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Equifax only for Watchful Eye; all three bureaus for Extra Caution and Total Protection

 

How often monitored: Every business day

 

Unlimited access to credit reports?

Quarterly updated report from Equifax for Watchful Eye; quarterly updated reports from all three bureaus for Extra Caution and Total Protection

 

Access to credit score? Quarterly updated score from Equifax for Watchful Eye; quarterly updated scores from all three bureaus for Extra Caution and Total Protection

 

Additional services:

Internet monitoring for exposure of Social Security number or other personal information

Lost wallet protection for help canceling credit cards and access to up to $2,000 from your account

ID theft help from the Identity Theft Assistance Center

Online financial tools to analyze credit

 

ID theft insurance: $2,500 with a $250 deductible for Watchful Eye; $1 million with no deductible for Extra Caution and Total Protection

 

Trial period: Two-week free trial with enrollment

 

 

 

Service: IdentityMonitor

 

Company: Citi

 

Cost: $12.95/month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Starts with Experian, but offers a coupon for a free upgrade to include the other two bureaus

 

How often monitored: Every business day

 

Unlimited access to credit reports? Yes, unlimited access to reports from all three bureaus after upgrade is processed

 

Access to credit score? Unlimited online access to credit scores from all three bureaus after upgrade

 

Additional services:

Online personal finance tools

Customer service representatives for fraud and credit management issues, available 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST weekdays and  9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays

 

ID theft insurance: Up to $25,000 to cover some ID theft-related expenses,

Trial period: First 30 days for $1

 

 

 

 

Service: Privacy Assist , Privacy Assist Premier, Privacy Assist Complete

 

Company: Bank of America

 

Cost: $8.99/ $12.99/ $18.99/month

 

Which bureaus monitored: Equifax for Privacy Assist; all three bureaus for Privacy Assist Premier and Privacy Assist Complete

 

How often monitored: Every business day

 

Unlimited access to credit reports? Online access to Equifax report, updated quarterly, for Privacy Assist; online access to reports from all three bureaus, updated quarterly, for Privacy Assist Premier and Privacy Assist Complete

 

Access to credit score? Access to Equifax score with quarterly update for Privacy Assist or scores from all three bureaus with quarterly update for Privacy Assist Premier and Privacy Assist Complete

 

Additional services:

24-hour identity theft hotline

Internet surveillance for illegal trading of personal information

Online credit analyzer and simulator

For Privacy Assist Complete only: keystroke encryption software; anti-virus, anti-spyware software; quarterly ID theft risk assessment report; regular reports on what personal information is available in public records

 

ID theft insurance:

$5,000 with $250 deductible for Privacy Assist; $25,000 with no deductible for Privacy Assist Premier; $50,000 with no deductible for Privacy Assist Complete

 

Trial period: 30-day trial period; billed monthly afterward

 

Published: February 24, 2011


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