As consumers scramble to protect their credit files after the recent Equifax data breach, all three credit bureaus are pushing their own credit monitoring services as the route to peace of mind. But monitoring your credit is not the same as protecting it.
Alerts and monitoring are like a security camera or burglar alarm: They don’t necessarily keep criminals out; they just make it easier to catch them before much damage is done.
That’s why NerdWallet advises you to freeze your credit at all three bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to keep the bad guys out in the first place and to consider doing your own monitoring rather than paying a bureau to do it.
Here’s what to know about credit monitoring services from credit bureaus and identity theft protection companies, and why we recommend a different route.
What credit monitoring services do
Monitoring: This service typically includes alerts you when a credit application has been made in your name, such as opening a new account or adding an authorized user, and when your credit score changes. Other offerings may include alerts about large transactions, credit limit increases and changes to personal information such as your address. Identity theft monitoring often includes checking whether your Social Security number is found on websites known to be risky (i.e., the “dark web”).
You need a service that watches your files at all three credit bureaus, not just one.
You need a service that watches your files at all three credit bureaus, not just one. Otherwise, it’s like locking one door and leaving two open.
Recovery: Unwinding the damage when someone hijacks your credit can involve as little as reporting the fraud to a credit issuer and getting a new card or as much as following all the steps outlined at IdentityTheft.gov and filing a police report. Some monitoring plans offer help with those tasks. Plans often include identity theft insurance, which can help cover lost wages, legal costs and more, as long as you report the theft in a timely manner and follow instructions.
Extras: Some credit monitoring services give you access to your credit scores. In addition, all three bureaus offer a “credit lock” as part of their monitoring services. A lock is like a freeze but it may be easier to suspend when you want to grant access to your file.
Credit bureau monitoring plans typically have an arbitration clause in their terms of service. When you sign up, you must waive your right to a class-action lawsuit and agree to use binding arbitration, which widely is considered to be against a consumer’s best interests.
A credit reporting bureau could fail you in two ways: by not providing adequate monitoring and by failing to safeguard the consumer information it collects on you.
The inability to sue is particularly bad in case of a breach because a credit reporting bureau could fail you in two ways: by not providing adequate monitoring and by failing to safeguard the consumer information it collects on you. That’s something to consider in the wake of the Equifax breach, which exposed the personal data of 145 million consumers. (Note: In response to a backlash, Equifax has removed the arbitration clause from its TrustedID monitoring product it is offering for free to all U.S. consumers for one year after its data breach. The sign-up period ends Jan. 31.)
In addition, monitoring usually involves an ongoing fee. The fees to place and temporarily lift freezes when you want to access your own credit vary by state but don’t top $20, so over time they’re cheaper than paying a monthly subscription.
Overview of credit/identity monitoring services
|Experian IdentityWorks Premium ||$19.99 a month or $199 a year||
|TransUnion Credit Monitoring||$19.95 per month||
|Equifax Trusted ID Premier||$0 until Jan. 31, 2018||
Using a bureau for credit monitoring comes with significant drawbacks, so we recommend avoiding them. In fact, you can get good protection at lower cost by doing it yourself.
- You can keep a watch on changes in your credit scores and reports on your own. You can access and monitor free credit score and report information from some personal finance websites, including Nerdwallet. Sign up for one before freezing your credit. In addition, you’re entitled to free credit reports every 12 months direct from the bureaus via AnnualCreditReport.com.
- You can place credit freezes yourself
- Your credit card issuers and financial institutions may let you set transaction alerts for free
- You can use services offered by some credit cards, which are stepping up to offer identity theft alerts
If you decide to pay for a monitoring service, consider an identity theft protection plan that’s not tied to a credit bureau. That preserves your ability to join a class action suit if a credit bureau fails to protect you.