Identity theft protection and whether you need it

March 11, 2013 2:46:31 PM PDT
If you're concerned about someone stealing your financial identity, you might be tempted to buy one of the many I-D protection services being heavily promoted. Millions of Americans have, but is it worth it? Consumer Reports analyzed this billion-dollar industry.

Audrey Mosello started thinking about I-D theft protection after she gave extensive financial information to a mortgage counselor, then began to doubt the company was legitimate.

"It was panic, that oh my gosh, I gave them everything, they have everything there is to know about me, including my Social Security number, all my bank information," Audrey Mosello said.

She immediately began researching how to guard her credit. The search term "I-D theft" quickly generates a list of companies that offer protection - at a price.

"People like Audrey are prime targets for companies that charge anywhere from 120 dollars to 300 dollars a year to protect their identity," Greg Daugherty of Consumer Reports said.

The marketing can be heavy-handed - with claims like "one of the fastest-growing crimes," "nine million Americans fall victim," and "you could already be a victim." Consumer Reports finds the most damaging type of I-D theft is rare.

"Less than one percent of households reported someone opening unauthorized credit, stealing their tax refunds, or tapping into their medical benefits, according to the U.S Justice Department," Daugherty said.

Furthermore, the main service that these companies offer is monitoring the big credit bureaus - Experian, Transunion, and Equifax - for new credit requests in your name. But you can do that yourself.

"We recommend getting an annual credit report from each of the three reporting bureaus. It's free, and if you stagger your requests, you can get a fresh report every four months," he said.

And if, you have reason to suspect a security breach as Audrey did, you can place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report that warns lenders to be more vigilant about granting credit.

Consumer Reports says for added protection place a security freeze on your credit report so that lenders you don't already do business with, like banks, won't have access to it. That makes it more difficult for crooks to open new accounts in your name. But if you apply for new credit, be aware you'll need to temporarily lift the freeze, which involves a small fee.

This report is based on an article in the January 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.