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Identity Theft Protection Services

Each year in America tens of millions of private records are lost or stolen and millions of consumers have their identities stolen. In response to this growing epidemic, many services have popped up that offer to protect you from identity theft and help undo the damage after it happens. But, are these services all they are cracked up to be?

Third-party ID theft protection

Credit monitoring services, such as TransUnion's TrueCredit, are growing in popularity. For $5 to $20 per month, the credit-monitoring service will alert you whenever your report changes. If anyone opens a new account in your name, you'll be notified within a few days.

In addition to notifying you, the monitoring service is also supposed to notify the three main bureaus; otherwise known as a fraud alert. The general rule is that only one bureau need be notified and then that bureau is expected to notify the other two. The fraud alert is intended to require lenders to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. But such alerts expire after 90 days. To address the lapses in coverage, companies such as Debix, LifeLock, LoudSiren, and TrustedID will renew alerts every three months for $9 to $13 a month.

Another issue is that lenders don't always abide by this protocol and have been known to issue credit despite the alert. Most lenders adhere to the alert, but there are no guarantees. Most monitoring services also offer online credit reports, online credit scores and tools for managing and improving your credit rating.

More comprehensive services are also offered by companies, like Identity Guard, that include: security software, public-records searches that identify names, addresses and property associated with your identity as well as other things like licenses, tax liens and criminal convictions. For around $17 per month, you'd be getting a little more bang for your buck.

What a credit-monitoring service won't tell you is if someone steals your credit card and runs up a huge bill; for that you must check your monthly billing statements. Furthermore, if you receive an alert about a suspicious inquiry, you'll have to identify it as phony and contact the credit bureaus on your own. There is quite a bit of work you will still have to do on your own should your personal information be compromised.

Using any of theses identity protection services is better than doing nothing and are intended to help people who don't have the time or resources to protect themselves. If you decide to use a third-party service, choose carefully, read the fine print, and don't fall victim to fear tactics.

Do-it-yourself ID theft protection

If you would rather take matters into your own hands and save your money, here are some things you can do to protect yourself:
  • Get a free copy of your credit report by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Don't be fooled by look-alike sites that promise free reports if you subscribe to their credit-monitoring services. Better yet, order by phone at 877/322-8228.
  • For DIY credit monitoring, order a free report every three months from a different bureau. Scan the report for unfamiliar information, such as accounts you don't remember opening.
  • Place a fraud alert on your credit report by calling one of the credit bureaus.
  • Put a recurring event in your online calendar to remind you to renew your fraud alert in 90 days.
  • Tell the bureaus to stop selling your information to credit services, by calling 888/567-8688 or visiting OptOutPrescreen.com. Doing so will reduce but not eliminate the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive.
  • Request a free public records report from ChoicePoint . You'll have to print a form and mail it, along with copies of your driver's license and proof of address. Scan the report for addresses and other details not related to you.
  • Take your name off other marketing lists by signing up for ProQuo.com's free service. In some instances, you may have to mail letters or navigate to a marketer's own site to complete your opt-out request.
  • Buy a mailbox that locks, or use a post office box. This will help prevent thieves from stealing your identity via paper mail.
  • Buy a crosscut paper shredder and shred junk mail to frustrate dumpster-diving identity thieves.
  • Never click a link from an e-mail message to log in to your bank or to any other financial institution. Type the secure site's address into your browser, bookmark it, and use that link to access your accounts. Otherwise, you risk having your identity stolen by phishers.
  • If you believe that you are a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center. Volunteers there can walk you through the process of restoring your identity.
  • Get educated. Mari Frank's IdentityTheft.org, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Federal Trade Commission maintain huge libraries of information on how to avoid being victimized, and what to do if it has already happened.

Security Freeze

One more thing you can do if you think your identity has been compromised is to place a security freeze on your reports. With a freeze, credit bureaus won't release your credit report at all. This is much more effective when it comes to protecting your credit and finances. The initial fee for establishing a freeze is around $10 per bureau. Unless you can prove you have been a victim of identity theft, then the freeze is free (in most states). The downside; freezes are much more stringent and inconvenient if you, yourself, want to apply for credit or do anything that requires a credit check. You would need to 'un-freeze' your report first, which may take a little time. Be sure to notify the bureaus way ahead of time if you need access to your credit report. And be prepared to pay a fee, which is usually around $10 per bureau. Freezes only prevent thieves from applying for credit in your name, which is good. But there are still many other ways ID thieves can fraudulently use your personal identity, such as using your medical insurance, applying for jobs, among other things.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Basically, there is no fool-proof method to completely protect against the varied ways thieves can use your info to their fraudulent advantage. But, there are ways to make it harder and to decrease the amount of potential damage. Do everything you can to protect yourself. Trying to clean up the mess created by a stolen identity is costly, time consuming and stressful.