July 12, 2011, 2:30 PM — If you use the Internet or own a credit card, the threat of having your identity stolen is omnipresent. Now, leading Internet service providers, financial institutions, and companies such as Sony are offering customers peace of mind with free identity theft protection. Other companies such as Debix are offering a free bare-bones version of ID theft protection to anyone online.
Cheapskates, beware: Although the offers sound good--and although they will save you between $10 and $15 monthly compared to paid ID theft protection alternatives--some of the offers we spotted could give you a false sense of security. We examined free ID theft protection offers from banks, ISPs, and assorted companies, and we collected some advice to help you decide which services to consider and which ones to avoid.
What to Look For
At its core, an identity theft protection service should monitor all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) constantly to see if anything fishy is going on, and it should send you an immediate alert if it spots any red flags, says Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit ID theft protection resource.
Among free ID theft protection services, you'll rarely get both monitoring of your credit reports and immediate alerts about suspicious activity. Protection isn't worth much if your name, Social Security number, and financial data are in the wrong hands and the service doesn't let you know, Foley says.
Any ID theft protection service that offers less probably exists for the sole purpose of upselling you to a paid protection plan. But as Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, points out, "Even a little protection is better than none."
Just All Right
While some of the services we spotted offer robust ID theft protection, most lack recommended safeguards. The aim of those lesser ID theft protection services is to monitor the Internet for any hint that your identity might be for sale on the black market, and to help victims close compromised accounts, place fraud alerts, and minimize damage.
Who Offers What?
Internet Service Providers
Odds are good that your ISP offers a basic form of identity theft protection. Comcast announced last month that its 23 million Xfinity broadband customers would have free ID theft protection, called the Constant Guard Protection Suite, as part of a partnership with Intersections, an ID theft protection firm.