KEEPING A CLEAN credit record is imperative these days. Unfortunately, the task of ensuring one's credit record remains fraud-, identity theft- and mistake-free, can feel like a next-to-impossible feat.
That's where credit-monitoring services come in they promise to do all the legwork for you. For $10 to $15 a month, these services, which are offered by credit reporting bureaus, banks and other third-party companies, provide customers with unlimited access to their credit report and score, plus e-mail notifications should any significant changes occur (be it a late payment or a new account opened in your name). Some even vow to reimburse for losses incurred fighting identity theft.
On the surface, credit monitoring services sound like a foolproof way to insure your credit's health. But, as consumer advocates caution, these services typically aren't worth the money. "Credit monitoring is grossly overpriced," says Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. Adds John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for financial-information web site Credit.com: "I can think of a lot of other ways to spend $150 a year."
Of course, credit bureaus argue that these services are worth every penny. "It's a good tool for managing credit, and that's what's missed in a lot of these conversations," says Steven Katz, a spokesman for TransUnion's TrueCredit.com. Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian, says not only does their service give consumers around-the-clock access to their credit report, but they also provide invaluable debt management tools to help them improve their creditworthiness. Demitra Wilson, a spokeswoman for Equifax, noted that these services can also make a lot of sense for consumers who don't have the time to regularly check their credit report.
Yet, while a select few subscribers may indeed benefit, such services are overwhelmingly a waste of cash, says Hillebrand. "You could spend your money better, on cheaper and more effective protections," she says. Here are four reasons why signing up for a credit monitoring service isn't worthwhile for most consumers:
Poor fraud protection
"Credit monitoring is like an alarm that warns you when someone's already broken in," says Hillebrand. "It doesn't stop the opening of new accounts; you just find out sooner." The services may also provide a false sense of security since there can be holes in coverage, she says. A service may only check in with one of three credit bureaus, for example, or fail to report activity in dormant accounts.
Consumers who want to protect themselves against identity theft (or who've fallen victim to it in the past), should consider a more effective and cheaper solution: freezing their credit report. "It's like putting a lock on the door of your credit file," says Hillebrand. For up to $10 per credit bureau (the amount depends on your state) this service prevents new lenders from looking at a report. Since lenders typically don't issue new credit without assessing a borrower's history first, the service serves to prevent identity thieves from opening an account under your name. The catch: neither can you, unless you temporarily unfreeze your account (Click here
Another way to protect against identity theft is to ask the three credit bureaus to post a free fraud alert on your account for 90 days. This renewable alert warns lenders to confirm your identity before issuing new credit.
Lenders see a different credit score than you doNot All Credit Scores Created Equal
Loophole-laden ID theft insurance
Most credit-monitoring services offer identity-theft insurance, which promises to help clear your name (and record) and reimburse for lost wages and legal fees should such fraud occur. However, as a 2007 Consumers Reports study found, many of these policies carry loopholes that can compromise that coverage. For example, some services exclude coverage for theft that occurred before the credit report was being monitored, leaving a person stranded if it takes time for unusual activity to be linked to their account.
Self-monitoring is freeAnnualCreditReport.com
Should you discover fraudulent charges, the Fair Credit Billing Act limits your liability for unauthorized charges to $50, and most credit card companies have protections.
Settlement Provides Free Monitoring
"I'd never pay for over-priced credit monitoring, but I might take it for free," says U.S. PIRG's Mierzwinski. Thanks to a May class-action settlement, a large number of consumers can do just that. As part of the settlement, TransUnion is offering up to nine months of free credit monitoring (valued at $9 to $15 per month) for eligible consumers. (The lawsuit alleged that the credit reporting bureau violated consumers' privacy by selling their credit information to marketers. While TransUnion denies any wrongdoing, it settled the case for $75 million, plus the free monitoring services).
Anyone who had an open line of credit (credit card, mortgage or other debt) that was reported to the credit bureau between January 1, 1987 and May 28, 2008 is eligible. To register, visit the settlement's web site before September 24, 2008, and choose among a potential cash payout of an undetermined amount, six months of standard credit monitoring (with or without the possibility of the cash payout), or nine months of enhanced credit monitoring (which includes your credit score, and no possibility of a cash payout). Once the monitoring period is over, you must re-subscribe if you wish to continue the service.