Identity theft has become part of everyone’s reality, whatever our age. But those of us who remember Apollo 11 landing on the moon are today far greater targets, as scammers and thieves test our vulnerabilities: whether because of our more trusting nature, lack of technological sophistication or growing inattention to detail. If we use the internet, have a smartphone, order from catalogs, get statements in the mail, use our medical benefits or simply answer our landlines, we need identity theft protection.
At first, we loved technology. But as it grew exponentially, and as more and more details of our lives were translated into ‘data,’ we started losing control. Identity theft protection companies popped up to help us protect all that data. The problem is that their names and services are as confusing as what they are protecting. However, it is important to get clarity, so we know we are getting the protection we need for our financial accounts, our assets and even our good names.
Ultimately we want a company to spot any unusual activity on our bank accounts and credit cards and ensure no one is using our Social Security Number or other personal identifiers. We want to be alerted when something seems abnormal so we (or they) can react. And we want their help to repair and resolve any issues if we do fall victim to identity theft.
It doesn’t take much for your personal information to get into the hands of scammers, or for it to find its way onto the ‘dark web,’ the part of the internet where IP addresses are masked and anonymity encourages nefarious acts. Your bank could be hacked. Someone in your doctor’s office could be skimming Social Security numbers. Or you could answer an email that looks like it’s coming from somewhere authentic. Without a protection service, you wouldn’t know until long after the damage has been done.
Having the right service in place, you can catch, slow down or totally avoid:
- credit cards from being used by others, with you being held responsible
- bank accounts from being emptied
- credit score from being harmed by false accounts and transactions
- retirement funds, 401ks and other assets from being accessed
- medical ID from being used for fraudulent reasons
- Social Security Number from being used by a scammer who files a tax return in your name and takes the refund
- address from being changed on any of your many accounts
While the best of services cannot stop all of that, a competent company can catch it early enough to limit the damage and then work with you to block further losses, reverse charges, correct reports and restore your identity to its pre-incident status.
Buying identity theft protection is much like buying a form of insurance. You are concerned about the price, about the length of commitment or contractual obligation, how hard it is to cancel and whether you will have a trial period, or time to try out the service.
Beyond that, you want to know exactly what is being monitored for you: fraud detection, credit card monitoring and internet monitoring are three areas. You want to know what kind of insurance or recovery cost coverage is offered, in case you fall victim to theft or fraud under the watch of the identity theft protection service. Lastly, you want to know if you will have access to your various credit score reports, and how often.
We refer to all these companies as identity theft protection services. The truth is that no service can guarantee that it can keep your personal information – your identity – from being stolen. These companies are mostly offering monitoring and recovery services.
Companies perform one of four basic activities. One is credit monitoring where they watch your credit reports and notify you if your credit is being attacked in some way. The second is identity theft prevention where they go beyond credit monitoring and work proactively to minimize your public exposure, also monitoring suspect websites for your personal information. The third is identity theft repair where companies help you reclaim your identity if it has been stolen or altered in some way, and also help you clean up the consequences.
Lastly is the full-service company that monitors your credit, prevents identity theft, offers some form of insurance in case your identity is stolen and works with you to reclaim your identity and your good name. You are looking for a full-service company.
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what others do: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Most of the activity of a full-service identity theft protection company is automated, so interaction is limited to you receiving potential incident alerts and responding to them promptly. Age friendliness relates to how easy the company’s website is to use and whether the service has round-the-clock live support on the phone to deal with incidents easily. You also want U.S.-based experts to work with you if you have to deal with an actual case of theft. The more supportive the system, the happier you will be as you get older and are less willing (or able) to stay on top of details.
The health-related value of a full-service identity theft protection company is very similar. As your health declines, you are no less likely to have your identity stolen. However, the implications for your health of the added aggravation of a lost identity are not minor. In fact, in the case of both advanced aging and poor health, the ideal situation would allow for a second person – perhaps an adult child or trusted caretaker – to receive alerts and be able to respond in your stead.
The fee related to identity theft protection services is straightforward: it is a monthly fee, or perhaps a slightly discounted annual fee, linked to a specific package of benefits. Where it becomes more complex is in understanding exactly what is in each package and which one fits your needs best.
That decision should begin with how much you can afford: pick a comfortable price range, but do not short-change yourself: identity theft protection is serious business. Then, once you have understood the different services offered and identified the ones that interest you, the next step is finding the large, reliable companies that offer such a package. Visit their websites to understand their offerings. Get a feel for the service you feel you would get from each company. From there, it is a matter of selecting the company that offers the package you want while staying within your budget.
The initial evaluation criteria in buying identity theft protection include the price, the contract obligation, the cancellation process and whether there is a risk-free trial period.
Price: While no one wants to throw money away, identity theft protection is one area where you want to spend what you can comfortably afford, in order to buy yourself the best service you can. Free services exist and are better than nothing, but are extremely limited and leave you exposed. Standard rates are in the $10-25/month range for basic services, such as online and credit monitoring, live support, identity restoration and a fund to pay for the necessary lawyers and experts, plus perhaps some reimbursement for your losses. More comprehensive services can be found at higher rates that offer full suites of features tailored to the needs of high net worth individuals or those with complex situations.
Contract obligation: Most contracts in this category are monthly or annual, with the majority being monthly. A review of a company’s Terms of Service will confirm how the company handles the transition from a trial period to a subscription term and how it handles refunds on monthly or (prepaid) annual accounts. If you commit to more than a month-to-month account, you should be able to recuperate a prorated value of unused months once you cancel your service following the company’s instructions.
Cancellation: If you choose to cancel a service after a trial period is over, and you have surpassed any ‘money back guarantee’ phase, cancellation should be easy and transparent. If a company’s cancellation policy is unfriendly, all the rest of its policies will most likely be unfriendly as well. A company that offers good service should not feel the need to hold its customers hostage with difficult exit procedures.
Risk-free trial period: A confident company should be willing to offer a risk-free trial period. However, setting up identity theft protection services for an individual takes time, as it entails gathering a large number of personal details and creating firewalls around the individual’s ‘digital persona’: all their accounts and areas of activity. As the monthly cost of most services is not exorbitant, whether or not a free trial is offered should not be a deal-breaker.
Selecting an identity theft protection company entails doing some preliminary research online to identity 3-5 companies that offer general protection services. Sticking to the larger companies makes sense as they have the technology and resources to stay ahead of the ever-changing scams and system weaknesses. Smaller companies may not.
Restoring an individual’s identity after it has been compromised is complex and costly. (It is certainly not something to consider tackling on your own.) As a result, understanding exactly how a company will proceed, how proactively it will act, what kind of people will take part in the process and how much funding will be available to pay for experts and lawyers – as well as to reimburse you for lost funds – should be carefully considered.
Lastly, you want to feel good about the company. Contacting its customer representatives should feel positive, even if the reason for having to do so is traumatic. Remember, this company is protecting something sacred to you: your identity and your good name. Do not make this decision lightly.