ID theft protection services may not be worth it

February 10, 2012 4:34:34 PM PST
It's a scary thought -- someone stealing your financial information. That fear has helped drive sales of identify-theft protection services.

Americans are spending an estimated $3.5 billion a year on protection. But Consumer Reports says save your money!

The services can be expensive, especially if you are buying it for each family member, but Consumer Reports says there are free things you can do that can help keep you safe from ID theft.

Lauren Mirsky considers herself lucky. Thieves tried to use her credit card on two different occasions, but each time they were thwarted.

She said, "The first time it happened, the credit card company called me when they thought there was suspicious activity on the card. The second time, it was actually an airline that called me when they thought someone was purchasing a ticket using my card."

Lauren was among the eight million people who fell victim to ID theft in 2010. Plenty of financial institutions are marketing identity theft protection services to people just like Lauren. Consumer Reports Money Adviser says the rate of ID theft is actually declining.

"We found the companies often overstate the risk and puff up the power of their services," said Greg Daugherty with Consumer Reports.

The companies promise to alert you to suspicious activity with services like 'daily credit monitoring' and 'protecting personal information' including your Social Security number. Consumer Reports Money Adviser is debunking ID-theft hype after looking at nearly two dozen plans that cost $120 to $300 a year.

Daugherty said, "It turns out you can do much of this monitoring yourself for little or no cost."

Start by getting your credit report free, once a year, from each of the three major reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Look them over for anything suspicious.

"Next put a security freeze on your file with the same credit agencies," Daugherty advised. "That blocks access to your credit report and makes it more difficult for a crook to get new credit in your name."

As for Lauren, thieves were stopped thanks to safeguards financial institutions have in place that are required by law -- another reason you can skip ID-theft protection.

Consumer Reports says there are other safeguards worth taking. Sign up for free alerts from your card issuer -- these red flag higher than usual charges on your accounts. Also routinely check your credit card statements for unauthorized purchases.