I received a notice in the mail some months ago that I was involved in a data breach a certain massive, multi-national telecomm company was settling. Like many people involved in such settlements, I was not offered a ludicrously small amount of money as a reward for being an unwitting victim. Instead, I was given the mostly useless gift of free Identity Theft Protection.
Identity Theft Protection (ITP) services promise to monitor your financial and online life (so often intertwined these days) and alert you if your personal information is compromised in order to steal your identity. This can involve anything from using your credit cards to make illegal purchases to more complex schemes that use your information to borrow money or open accounts in your name, potentially ruining your credit score and leaving you with an enormous mess to clean up.
Considering the damage that identity theft can do to you, paying for ITP seems like a pretty good idea. But the fact is that while there’s nothing wrong with doing do, you don’t need them, because you can do just about all the important stuff yourself—for free.
What ITP does
It’s important to note that Identity Theft Protection isn’t the same as Identity Theft Insurance. The latter covers you against financial losses incurred if someone steals your identity, while the former alerts you to the possibility that it’s happening to you. It’s also important to note that ITP doesn’t always do anything to stop identity theft—it simply monitors aspects of your life for signs of it and then alerts you to those signs so you can take action.
Typically, ITP services monitor:
- Credit reports for new accounts or other suspicious activity (not all ITP services monitor all three of the major credit bureaus, however).
- Social media accounts for your personal information like your phone number or Social Security number.
- Dark web sites that serve as data-brokers trading in stolen personal information.
- Your financial accounts for suspicious withdrawals or unauthorized access.
Some of these services will simply alert you when something troubling is found, while others will go further and take proactive steps, like working to scrub your information from known sites that sell stolen information.
Many ITP services also offer recovery assistance and some form of insurance in the case of identity theft. Norton’s LifeLock service, for example, offers up to $1 million “for lawyers and experts” hired to help clean up the mess, and up to $25,000 in reimbursements as part of their lowest-cost tier. Considering you can lose a lot of money if someone steals your identity, that’s a nice feature—but not all ITP services offer insurance and reimbursements, so you have to read the fine print.
Is ITP worth it?
On the one hand, identity theft protection services obviously offer some benefit. They can automate some of the work of protecting yourself, and offer an extra layer of vigilance as well as assistance and compensation if you get nailed by identity theft anyway.
But ITP services mainly offer alerts after the fact—they don’t actually do much to prevent your information from getting out there in the first place. And there are many reasons why paying for an ITP services isn’t really worth it:
- They’re not magic. Having ITP services doesn’t mean you won’t have to do anything. You’ll still need to wade through alerts (sometimes a lot of them, which can lead to “alert fatigue” that defeats the purpose), and alerts are often too late—by the time a service is warning you that your Social is out there, it’s out there. And if you need to recover from identity theft (despite having an ITP service in place) you’ll need to put in the work there as well—ITP services can help with recovery, but it’s still gonna be on you to do the legwork. You’re often better off proactively practicing good personal information hygiene in the first place.
- You can do most of this yourself, for free. You can access your credit reports for free once a year. And you should! It’s a fast and pretty straightforward operation, and at a glance you can see if someone has opened a credit card or taken out a loan in your name. In fact, the number one best way to stop folks from stealing your identity is to freeze your credit, which prevents anyone—even if they have your personal information—from getting a new credit card or loan. While this doesn’t protect you from every single kind of fraud out there, it removes the most common vectors that identity thieves use.
- You might already have it, for free. If you’ve been involved in a data breach, you might already have access to ITP services, just like me. In fact, the way companies just give away ITP any time they screw up kind of lets you know just how “valuable” these services actually are. Also, many organizations offer ITP as a benefit—for example, if you’re a member of AAA you can get ITP as a free add-on service.
- You can perform recovery actions yourself, for free. Recovering from identity theft is challenging, but there’s nothing an ITP service will do that you can’t do yourself. The government, in fact, maintains a website designed to help you figure everything out and take action to deal with the situation.
- Your personal liability is often limited. If someone gets control of your credit card, for example, your personal liability is legally limited to just $50 no matter how much the criminal actually charges to your card, and most banks or credit card issuers will simply waive fraudulent charges as long as you dispute the charges within 60 days of the statement date.
In the end, identity theft protection is kind of like a car alarm: It might make you feel better psychologically, but it doesn’t actually do much. As with many things, if you have the cash to spare for identity theft protection, there’s no harm in paying for it. But all you really need to do is take a few simple steps on a regular basis and you’ll do everything these services promise just as well—and maybe even better, since you’ve got skin in that game.