Ask The Expert

Double down for credit safety

Question: I’ve been hearing a lot about credit monitoring, but I’m not sure it’s worth paying a service for this. Should I spend the money? Can’t I do this for free?

Answer: The short answer is yes, there are free options, and yes, credit monitoring is worth the investment. In fact, for those who feel their identity or personal information may be at risk, I always recommend a two-pronged approach: a credit-monitoring service combined with a free fraud alert placed on your credit file (go to annualcreditreport.com for more information on how to do this).

Credit monitoring is a good thing—it’s fairly inexpensive and serves its purpose. Basically, if there’s any change in your credit profile, you’re notified by email. You have the freedom of not having to check your credit all the time—the service is working for you. It’s not always instantaneous, though. You may not learn of a change in your file for about a week. So if you’re away on vacation and unable to check your email, the damage has been done.

That’s why, for those who think their personal information may somehow have been exposed, using both methods is best. If you place a fraud alert on your credit file and a creditor checks your credit, they’re instantly alerted to contact you by telephone. They should not extend credit unless they reach you and authenticate you. The fraud alert lasts for 90 days, so you must extend it regularly.

But realize, the purpose of a fraud alert is to make it more difficult to extend credit, and this might affect your ability to “instantly qualify” for an in-store credit card or auto loan. This is also why you’ll need to set up your monitoring product first. If you place a fraud alert first, it may prevent the monitoring company from accessing your credit information. If you already have a fraud alert in place, it’s best to wait until the alert has expired. Once it has, you can register for your monitoring products, then reactivate the alert.

When shopping for a monitoring service, check with your insurance carrier, bank or credit union. Many sell and back up products with fraud resolution. An annual service is easier and less expensive than a monthly one, but both are fine. What’s most important is choosing a product that covers all three credit bureaus. Many services will give you access to all three credit reports but will only monitor one bureau.

Also, find out how the monitoring company backs up their services. If your credit is compromised, are resolution services included? What else are you paying for? Do they also include public and court records or Social Security trace monitoring? And do they share or sell your information with third parties to market to you later?

None of these methods is 100 percent fraud-proof. Occasionally creditors don’t adhere to the fraud alert. But with both a credit-monitoring program and a fraud alert in place, you’ve increased the likelihood of catching fraud early and decreased the chances of human or systems error allowing an identity thief to slip through the cracks. 

Brett Montgomery is a team leader in CyberScout’s fraud resolution center. He has more than 15 years’ experience in financial fraud and advocating for identity theft victims.
 

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