July 26, 2010, 12:22 PM — Todd Davis is best known as the CEO of identity-theft protection company LifeLock who used his own Social Security number in his company's advertising as a sign of his confidence in the service. In May, it was widely reported that Davis's identity had been stolen at least 13 times. The controversy over LifeLock's advertising ultimately cost the company $12 million in fines.
Granted, most of us won't plaster our Social Security numbers all over billboards. But real threats exist out there, and it is important to protect your identity. Are online identity-protection services worth the cost? Can you trust them? Are there more-effective ways to protect your personal information without the services of a specialized company? We did some digging, and here's what we found.
How Identity Theft Works
Criminals can steal your identity through a variety of ways, including phishing scams, malware on your PC, and even rooting through your trash for sensitive paper documents. You can defend yourself against such attacks by keeping an eye out for phishing tactics, running antimalware utilities, and shredding documents.
One method of identity theft that you can't directly guard against is a data breach against a company--such as a bank--that you do business with. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, 498 such breaches occurred in 2009. Often criminals will sell personal information harvested from data breaches to other crooks on online black markets. Criminals could use your identity for anything from opening bank or credit card accounts to seeking medical care using your name.
To make matters worse, laws requiring companies to disclose data breaches are spotty: Some states have tough reporting laws, but no national standard exists. In other words, you could do everything right, and still have your identity stolen without realizing it. No wonder there's a market for identity-theft protection services.
What ID Protection Services Do (and Don't Do)
Identity-theft protection services typically monitor your credit or public records for any suspicious charges, or offer other identity-theft safeguards, for a monthly fee. In some cases they provide services to help clean up the mess left behind in the wake of identity theft and assist in rebuilding your credit. Banks frequently offer several degrees of identity-theft protection to their customers, as well.