A private study conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research found that $16.8 billion was stolen from more than 16 million U.S. victims in 2017. (An identity-protection service paid for the study.) The crimes involved range from credit-card fraud to misuse of Social Security numbers to full-on impersonation.
Based on our three months of undercover testing, which involved signing up and paying for each service, bothering their customer-support representatives with questions about the Equifax data breach, and putting personal information into their credit-score simulators, we conclude that the best identity-theft-protection service is IdentityForce UltraSecure+Credit.
IdentityForce offers comprehensive monitoring of your financial activity and personal information and provides quarterly updates to your credit scores and reports. The service delivered a rather small number of email and SMS notifications, but you can adjust how many alerts you receive.
LifeLock Ultimate Plus provided the most comprehensive monitoring of personal accounts, including financial and investment accounts, but it isn't generous with credit reports, and it has a lot of negative feedback from both users and federal regulators.
Identity Guard Platinum provides new credit reports every month and comes with antivirus software and a password manager. Yet, it neglects to monitor many categories that other services do keep an eye on, including bank and credit card accounts. That may change once Identity Guard implements the IBM Watson artificial-intelligence platform on all its plans.
Identity Alerts and Threats
— Researchers from Kaspersky Labs have found serious software flaws in home security cameras made by Hanhwa Techwin, some of which were sold under the Samsung SmartCam or Wisenet SmartCam brand names. ADVICE: If you have a Samsung/Wisenet SmartCam, use the associated iOS or Android mobile app, or your account at SamsungSmartCam.com, to update the firmware.
— Eighteen percent of people working in the healthcare industry said they would be willing to sell patients' medical records, according to a survey conducted by Accenture. Stolen medical records are a leading cause of identity theft. ADVICE: Get one credit report every four months from annualcreditreport.com, file your taxes early and follow the tips outlined here.
— Chinese cybercriminals have put together a botnet of nearly 5 million infected Android devices, according to researchers at Check Point. The malware behind these circulates in "off-road" app markets. ADVICE: Make sure that "Unknown sources" is unselected in your Android device's security settings (so that you can install apps only from Google Play), and install an Android antivirus app.
Why Identity Protection Services May Be Worth It
Are identity-protection services really worth the cost? Yes, particularly if you know your personal information may have been compromised due to a data breach or other leak.
There are several things you can do yourself to protect your identity, such as frequently checking your bank and credit-card statements, receiving a free credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) once a year, and asking the credit agencies to put a fraud alert on your records.
But such vigilance can be time-consuming, which is what makes a paid identity-protection service an appealing option. For a monthly fee, these services will monitor your personal information and alert you if suspicious or fraudulent activity is occurring. Most of the services will also help you restore your credit if your identity is stolen.
What to Look For
The six services we tested have a lot in common. All monitor your files with least one of the major credit-reporting agencies. And all watch the "dark web" and other areas of criminal activity for mention of your name, Social Security number, and credit-card and bank-account numbers.
In addition, each of these services sends you alerts via email and SMS text messaging; all have iOS and Android mobile apps, and if your identity is stolen while you're paying one of these services to watch it, each will spend a lot of money doing the dirty work of restoring your good name and credit.
But identity-protection services vary in the number of credit agencies they work with and in how often you'll get credit reports and scores. Some services monitor your bank, credit-card and investment accounts, but others don't. The credit-restoration coverage may not include reimbursement of lost wages or stolen funds. Last but not least, only two of these six services let you protect your account (and the highly sensitive information therein) using two-factor login authentication, which many other online services offer as a valuable security precaution.
Best Overall: IdentityForce UltraSecure+Credit
Best Data Monitoring: LifeLock Ultimate Plus
Best Tools: Identity Guard Platinum
Best for Families: IDShield Individual
Other ID Protection Services Reviewed
How We Test and Rate Identity-Protection Services
Our testing and analysis of identity-protection services focused on how well each one monitored credit reports, financial activity and personal information. We rated each service for the amount of information that it provides about your credit report and whether or not it displays your credit score. (Free annual credit reports don't include your credit score.)
We also gave extra weight to services that offer tools to help you improve your credit score. We penalized services that do not display your credit report for all three credit bureaus.
We also rated each service for the number of credit cards, debit cards and bank accounts that it monitors. We paid attention to whether or not a service provided email or SMS notifications for large changes to an account balance or large expenses on a credit card.
We penalized services that didn't allow us to add personal information beyond our Social Security number, such as our driver's license number, phone number or multiple email addresses. Each of those numbers can also be used to steal your identity. We gave extra points to services that detected any compromised personal information.
Our testing period lasted three months in the fall of 2017. During that period, our reviewer used his credit cards and bank accounts as usual. He opted into email, SMS and phone alerts (when applicable) from the services, and regularly checked his credit reports to monitor any changes.
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