According to data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there were 332,646 identity theft complaints in 2014 – and a significant number of those complaints resulted in fraudulent credit card accounts and bogus charges.
With large-scale data breaches becoming more and more common, the Experian/T-Mobile hack that exposed the records of 15 million T-Mobile customers in 2015 comes to mind.
Having a reliable credit monitoring service is essential for everyone who wants to be sure their financial information hasn’t been compromised.
However, not all services are created equally. And finding the right service that provides the protection and resources you need can prove challenging.
If you’ve never thought about credit monitoring before or if you don’t know where to begin, this article will help you to understand the benefits of using one.
It will teach you how to protect yourself and what you should look for when choosing the best credit monitoring service for your situation.
QUICK OVERVIEW: TOP 3 CREDIT MONITORING SERVICES
What is a credit monitoring service?
At its most basic, it’s a service that keeps track of any changes in your credit files from the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
It may keep track of activity on your credit files, changes to your credit scores, or both. The types of activity that may be tracked include:
- New accounts
- Changes to your credit limits
- Large purchases on an account
- New activity on a dormant account
- Credit inquiries
- Missed payments
- Collection accounts
Some of them will also provide you with a copy of your credit report and assistance with managing identity theft so that you can correct any fraudulent activity as soon as possible to minimize losses.
These services may or may not include identity theft insurance to cover you in the event that you are held liable for fraudulent charges.
Do I need credit monitoring?
Given the staggering number of businesses that have been hacked in recent years, both credit card fraud and identity theft are a concern that the average person can’t afford to ignore.
Your personal information may be stolen from legitimate business transactions and it can happen at any time, regardless of the precautions you take personally to keep your information safe.
Even if you don’t currently have a credit card, scammers can take your information and open new accounts in your name – exposing you to hundreds or even thousands of dollars in losses. All it takes is one instance of identity theft to ruin your credit for months or even years.
Without dependable credit monitoring in place, you may not realize that your credit has been compromised until you are denied credit or the bill collection notices start coming in – and by then, it’s too late.
What are the types of credit monitoring?
Not all services provide the same features. Most of them can be broken into three types of monitoring and/or protection.
- Credit Report Monitoring – active monitoring of your credit reports for changes that might be linked to identity theft or fraud.
- Identity Theft Protection – active monitoring of your personal information such as your social security number, registered credit cards or bank account numbers to be sure they aren’t compromised online.
- Comprehensive Credit Monitoring – a combination of credit report monitoring and identity theft protection designed to keep both your credit file and your personal information safe and secure.
Which one should I choose?
When evaluating services, it’s important to compare your needs to what each service offers.
To give you an idea of what kind of credit monitoring might be right for you, consider this checklist of recommended actions you’ll need to take if your identity is stolen:
- Call the companies where the fraud occurred
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report
- Get a copy of your credit report to look for other problems
- Report the identity theft to the FTC and the police
- Close any credit card accounts opened in your name
- Cancel any other types of account fraudulently opened in your name
- Dispute charges through your credit card company
- Dispute any negative accounts on your credit file caused by the fraud
If you feel comfortable handling these tasks (and more) on your own, you can probably get by with a service that alerts you of any changes in your credit files without any extra support.
However, a more complete credit monitoring service makes sense if you want to monitor for things like your personal information appearing online on well-known financial black markets.
When it comes to credit monitoring, there are several options on the market:
LifeLock is a well-known company that provides several levels of identity protection.
Their standard service provides monitoring of black-market websites to notify you if your personal information has been compromised.
One unique offering of LifeLock is their pre-approved credit offer reduction service. This can be useful for people who don’t want to constantly be bombarded with offers for new credit cards and lines of credit through the mail.
All LifeLock plans offer 24/7 support and assistance with identity theft issues.
If you’re looking for simpler options, IdentityForce provides two-tiered credit monitoring and their UltraSecure+ Credit option covers the same services as Identity Guard (below).
It includes public information monitoring, alerts for changes to your credit reports, credit score monitoring and more. If you don’t require monthly credit report monitoring and scores, their UltraSecure option may suit you better.
Both of these plans also comes with identity theft assistance, so if your personal information is compromised, you have professional help to file all the necessary reports and paperwork to prevent losses and get your life back on track.
Experian offers credit monitoring and identity protection through its Protect My ID service.
It’s more basic than what’s offered through some of the others as there is no option to track your credit scores.
Instead, Experian keeps track of:
- Credit report changes
- Unauthorized use of your social security number, debit, or credit cards
- Any unauthorized change of address
In addition, the service offers assistance with fraud resolution in case your identity is stolen or there are unauthorized charges on your accounts. As with the other options we’ve covered, Experian offers $1 million in identity theft insurance to minimize the risk of losses.
Identity Guard® offers several tiers. At the high end, their Platinum service monitors all three credit bureaus for certain activity that may indicate fraud.
It keeps track of your public information and alerts you if changes are spotted, and provides monthly updates to the three credit scores they provide. This is in addition to other services such as identity theft assistance, and social security number monitoring.
The Essentials version does not keep track of your credit scores or changes to your credit reports.
However, it is useful for monitoring your personal information and receiving alerts if it is found on one of the numerous websites where scammers are known to buy and sell information.
Their identity theft assistance is also standard and will help you with completing the many steps you need to help protect yourself if your identity is stolen. Also standard across all plans is their $1 million insurance designed to help you minimize losses if your information is compromised.
One of the attractive things about signing up for credit monitoring with MyFICO is that they actually perform the credit scoring algorithms that you’d get from any other service.
MyFICO offers two different levels of service.
The first is called FICO Essentials 1B. You’ll get monthly access to one credit report and one credit score, both of which are based on your report from Equifax. You get instant access to your account, can monitor changes, and even track your credit history.
As an added bonus, you’ll receive help in restoring your identity should any of your personal information be stolen. This package costs $19.95 per month, or you can save by prepaying a year for $219.
Alternatively, you can elect for the FICO Ultimate 3B plan, which provides your credit report and score from all three bureaus. However, you only get updates every quarter, so you won’t see changes as they occur.
On the other hand, you do get intelligent identity monitoring, which is a great feature to use. This plan is available for $29.95 per month or $329 for the year.
How do these services protect me?
They work by keeping track of your credit files at the three credit bureaus. If there are changes found in your credit files, you will be alerted through email or a text message. Once notified, you can take several actions:
- For new, unauthorized accounts you can contact the credit issuer and get the account shut down.
- If you have unauthorized charges on existing accounts, you can file a dispute
- If some information on your credit profile is inaccurate, you can request corrections
It’s crucial to make sure that your information is being reported correctly. This is especially the case when it comes to credit card limits, because companies may raise or lower your limit without warning. When this happens the only way to stay on top of your credit scores is to monitor your credit for such changes.
What do I do if they find a problem?
Once you have credit monitoring in place, it may be tempting to “set it and forget it” but that’s not the best way to keep yourself protected. Be sure that the emails and text alerts aren’t sent to spam or blocked.
If you do have your accounts compromised, the faster you are able to respond, the better your outcome will be. When you receive an alert:
- Respond promptly – contact your credit monitoring service and find out which steps they can handle for you
- Provide information quickly – if you have a support team in place to fill out paperwork on your behalf, make sure they have the information needed
- Follow-up regularly – make sure everything is handled in a timely fashion to avoid being liable for debts and fraudulent charges
With the right credit monitoring in place, you can prevent huge financial losses and keep your good credit safe from scammers, thieves, and fraud.
How else can I protect my credit?
Another service to consider using to help protect yourself from identity theft is a credit freeze. This service is now free to use with all three major credit bureaus.
What does a credit freeze entail?
It denies most creditors from accessing your credit report, including to analyze credit applications. Anyone who tries to open a credit card or other account under your name will likely be denied because the creditor couldn’t verify your credit history.
When you want to apply for credit on your own, you can lift the freeze either temporarily or permanently.