Modern Social Security card.

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UPDATED 1/24/2017 Identity theft protection is becoming a big business. The programs vary dramatically so you need to ask the right questions to make sure you are getting what you paid for. Plus, a free way to get identity theft protection.

Credit monitoring

Companies sell identity theft protection services, but the programs really focus on monitoring and repair.

When a company monitors your credit, they track activity on your credit reports. You can also do this yourself for free.

If you check your own credit report, you won’t receive real-time data. You’ll only get the data every few months when you check the report manually.

The monitoring service alerts you for the following reasons: a company checks your credit history, a new account is opened, a late payment, bankruptcy filing, a legal judgment, your credit limit changes, or your personal data changes.

The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers that some forms of identity theft don’t appear on your credit report. If a thief takes money from your bank account or files a fake tax return with your Social Security number, you won’t be alerted through monitoring.

Make sure the monitoring service checks your credit at all three credit reporting agencies. This is the best way to make sure you are fully protected.

Identity monitoring & recovery

There’s also identity monitoring. This is when your personal information like your driver’s license, Social Security Number, or medical ID is used by a thief in a way that would not show up on your credit report. This type of monitoring service alerts you when your personal information is used for a change of address, court or arrest records, payday loan application, new utility or wireless service, or social media.

That’s why the FTC suggests you ask specific questions when hiring an identity monitoring company. Ask what information they track, and from which sources. Also, how often are they checking?

Also, ask if you’ll pay extra for recovery. This is when you use the service of the company to repair your credit once you’re a victim.

Will the company repair your credit for you or do you have to do all the work and apply for reimbursement through an identity theft insurance policy?

If you still want a third party to look after your name, expect to pay $15-20 a month.

Read the fine print so you know what you are signing up for. Research the company to see if it’s been subject to FTC action, and read consumer reviews.

Free ways to monitor your identity

The best way to keep tabs on your identity is to check your credit report year round. The government tells you to check it once a year for free at Annual Credit Report, but there’s a way to keep tabs on it year round. Click here for more on this feature, and yes it’s free and legit through Annual Credit Report.

There are lots of others ways to protect your name with simple steps. You protect your own name. Here are some ways: keep tabs on your credit, reduce your junk mail, shredding, Google your name to make sure private information is not publicly posted, and browse privately online.  You don’t necessarily need a company to do what you can do on your own.

If you prefer a company to monitor your credit, ask the companies you currently do business with if they offer the service. Banks, credit unions, and even insurance companies often offer identity theft protection for a small cost or even free.

You automatically get free identity theft monitoring when your personal information is stolen in a data breach. The company that held your information will let you know how to sign up for the free monitoring. If your information is stolen due to that breach, most companies also reimburse you for expenses or offer a repair service.

It’s tough to recover from identity theft, so take steps to protect your name so you’re not a victim.