In the summer of 2019, I got an email with some good news. As one of the millions of people whose personal information the 2017 Equifax data breach exposed, I was entitled to compensation from Equifax. I could receive up to $125 in cash or up to 10 years of free credit monitoring from Experian and Equifax.
In theory, it should have been a no-brainer. Credit monitoring services typically cost between $10 and $30 per month, so 10 years of monitoring would typically cost about $2,400 — which is way more than $125. But I hesitated. Would the service I received from Experian and Equifax actually help protect me from identity theft better than a free credit monitoring service?
To find out, I did some research.
I discovered that services from the credit bureaus, other paid credit monitoring providers, and even free services aren’t all created equal. Some are better at preventing, detecting, and resolving identity theft than others. And price isn’t always an indicator of value.
Best Credit Bureau Monitoring Services
Each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — offers a paid credit monitoring service. Some of them also provide free services that deliver just a few basic protections, like the ability to lock and unlock your credit report.
Several reviews analyze how the credit bureaus’ services stack up against the competition. Business sites like CNBC and Money, news sites like NBC and U.S. News, and tech publications like Tech Radar and CNET all offer their takes on the features, cost, and ease of use of different services.
Here’s what these various sources have to say about the three credit bureaus’ monitoring services.
1. Equifax Complete Premier
Equifax offers two tiers of credit monitoring. The basic plan, Equifax Complete, costs $9.95 per month. It monitors your Equifax credit report and your VantageScore credit score, the leading alternative to the standard FICO credit score. You can check them both daily and receive alerts whenever either one changes.
This service also allows you to “lock” your Equifax credit report at any time. This prevents anyone else from accessing it to open a new credit account. If anyone tries to access your report, the service alerts you. However, it won’t help you if someone tries to open a new account by accessing your Experian or TransUnion credit report.
Equifax Complete also has features for identity theft protection. For instance, if you suspect you’ve been a victim of fraud, you can put a fraud alert on your account. This encourages lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity before opening a new account in your name. The alert renews automatically every year.
If you actually become a victim of identity theft, a team of ID restoration specialists from Equifax works on your behalf to help you recover. Finally, the service provides up to $500,000 in identity theft insurance to cover the cost of restoring your identity.
The upper tier, Equifax Complete Premier, costs $19.95 per month. It provides three-bureau credit monitoring, rather than the single-bureau monitoring of the lower tier. It also gives you yearly access to your credit report and VantageScore from all three credit bureaus.
Equifax Complete Premier also adds some extra identity theft protection features that aren’t in Equifax Complete. These include:
- Improved identity theft insurance with up to $1 million in coverage
- Stolen funds replacement for up to $1 million in stolen bank or credit card funds that you can’t recover through your financial institution
- Regularly scanning dark web sites for your personal information — such as your Social Security number (SSN), credit card numbers, bank account info, or medical ID — and alerting you if it finds anything
- Lost wallet assistance, which helps you cancel and replace all your cards and ID if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen
- A Family Plan option that helps you prevent child identity theft by locking your children’s credit reports at no extra cost
According to CNET, this top-tier plan is roughly on a par with the competition. It’s not noticeably better or worse than the services from the other credit bureaus. However, it notes that some users might feel reluctant to trust Equifax to protect their data after the 2017 breach.
Equifax also offers a free service called Lock & Alert. It doesn’t monitor your credit report or score, but it lets you lock and unlock your Equifax credit report easily. Just swipe your screen in the mobile app or click a button on the website. The downside is that anyone who steals your phone might be able to shut you out of your own credit report.
2. Experian IdentityWorks
Experian offers several types of credit monitoring. Its most basic service provides you a copy of your Experian credit report and credit score once every 30 days for free. It also provides real-time alerts about any suspicious activity on your report. And, when you sign up, it does a one-time scan of the dark web for signs of your personal info.
This free service also includes a feature called Experian Boost. It helps you improve your credit by adding on-time payments for phone and utility bills to your Experian credit file. This allows you to build credit without a credit card.
You don’t need to make a purchase or provide a credit card number to sign up for this service. All you have to do is agree to receive email offers of products and services such as credit cards. Both CNBC and TechRadar recommend Experian’s free service as one of the top free credit monitoring services.
If you want more protection, you can upgrade to Experian’s paid identity theft protection service, called IdentityWorks. This service has two tiers, both of which come with a 30-day free trial.
The lower tier, IdentityWorks Plus, costs $9.99 per month. It monitors your Experian credit report and lets you lock and unlock your report with a single click. It also includes many of the same features as Equifax Complete Premier, such as:
- Credit score monitoring
- Dark web monitoring
- Alerting you to changes in your legal address
- Lost wallet assistance
- Access to a fraud resolution specialist
- $500,000 in identity theft insurance
IdentityWorks Premium costs $19.99 per month and adds several extra layers of protection. It notifies you if anyone uses your name to open a new account, apply for a payday loan, or commit a crime. It also alerts you to any use of your SSN and notifies you if a registered sex offender moves into your neighborhood. And it ups your identity theft insurance to $1 million.
For an extra fee, you can add other members of your family to either tier of IdentityWorks. IdentityWorks Plus costs $14.99 per month for one adult and up to 10 children, or $19.99 if you add a second adult. IdentityWorks Premium costs $24.99 or $29.99 for the same protection. CNBC names IdentityWorks as the top credit monitoring service for families.
3. TransUnion Credit Monitoring
Like Experian, TransUnion offers a free identity protection service, called TrueIdentity. It monitors only your TransUnion credit report, sending alerts to suspicious activity and allowing you to lock and unlock it with a swipe. Also, it provides $25,000 in identity theft insurance.
TransUnion also has a separate, free instant alerts feature. It sends you an email alert if someone tries to access your credit report or open a new credit account in your name. If you hear about any fraudulent activity, you can notify TransUnion right away to put a stop to it.
TransUnion’s paid credit monitoring service provides a bit more protection than TrueIdentity. For $24.95 per month, it provides:
- Unlimited access to your TransUnion credit report and score
- Email updates of changes in all three of your credit reports
- Advice on how to boost your credit score
- The ability to lock and unlock both your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports
- Toll-free access to ID theft specialists
- Up to $1 million in identity theft insurance
Best Paid Credit Monitoring Services
The credit bureaus aren’t the only companies to offer paid credit monitoring services. Similar services from several other companies get high marks from tech and business publications.
4. IdentityForce UltraSecure
The credit monitoring service that most consistently appears at the top of reviewers’ recommendations is Sontiq’s IdentityForce. This service offers two tiers of protection: UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit.
IdentityForce UltraSecure monitors use of your personal information from a wide variety of sources. It consults court records, banks, payday lenders, medical bills, the National Change of Address (NCOA) database, social media, and the dark web. It even checks for your identity on sex offender registries. This service costs $14.99 per month or $149.90 per year.
IdentityForce also promises you control over your data. It offers tools to help you reduce junk mail, protect your computer from malware, and detect email phishing and keylogging scams. It provides access to a virtual private network (VPN), a password manager, and a secure digital vault for private info. And it includes lost wallet assistance.
If someone still manages to steal your identity, IdentityForce has a team of experts available 24/7 to help you with paperwork and calls. It offers $1 million in identity theft insurance to cover out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages, plus another $1 million in coverage for stolen funds. TechRadar describes the company’s customer service as great.
However, this basic plan does not include actual credit monitoring. For that, you need UltraSecure+Credit. It monitors your credit reports from all three bureaus and provides full access to your credit reports and scores. It also has a credit simulator that shows how various actions might affect your credit score. This service costs $19.99 per month or $199.90 per year.
Another top pick in professional reviews is PrivacyGuard. This company offers three different services.
- Identity Protection. For $9.99 per month, this service scans both the public Internet and the dark web for your personal info, including debit and credit card account numbers. It notifies you of fraudulent activity and helps with recovery. It also includes lost wallet protection and $1 million in identity theft insurance.
- Credit Protection. This service provides three-bureau credit monitoring. It alerts you to any changes and provides monthly credit score updates. It also includes a credit simulator tool, assorted financial calculators, and access to a credit hotline. It costs $19.99 per month.
- Total Protection. PrivacyGuard’s top-tier service provides all the benefits of Identity Protection and Credit Protection combined. It costs $24.99 per month.
All three PrivacyGuard plans come with a two-week trial period. You pay just $1 to test the service for 14 days, after which the price jumps up to the regular monthly rate.
6. Identity Guard
Several publications have good things to say about Identity Guard. It’s the top pick overall in U.S. News, and Money dubs it the best service for providing fast alerts. This service relies on IBM’s Watson, a form of artificial intelligence, to ferret out identity fraud and respond to it quickly.
Another notable feature of Identity Guard is its relatively low price. The service’s basic Value tier costs just $8.99 per month or $90 per year for one person. It monitors millions of information sources on the public Internet and the dark web.
If your personal info is exposed, Identity Guard notifies you promptly through both email and its own mobile app. The Value tier provides $1 million in ID theft insurance and a team of experts to help you recover. It also includes tools to help you browse, shop, and bank online safely.
However, the Value tier does not actually monitor your credit. For that, you must upgrade to the midrange Total plan. It provides three-bureau credit monitoring, bank account monitoring, and monthly access to your credit score. It costs $19.99 per month or $200 per year.
The top-level Ultra plan adds extra features for both credit and identity theft protection. It monitors more accounts, including credit and debit cards, investment accounts, 401(k)s, and home titles. It also checks criminal and sex offense databases and the change of address database.
Other perks of the Ultra tier include a report on your social media accounts, yearly access to your three credit reports, and “white glove” service to deal with identity theft. This service costs $29.99 per month or $300 per year.
All three tiers of Identity Guard have family plans available. Prices are $14.99 per month ($150 per year) for Value, $29.99 per month ($300 per year) for Total, and $39.99 per month ($400 per year) for Ultra.
Norton’s LifeLock was one of the first identity theft protection services, and according to U.S. News, it’s still tops for protecting your computer and other devices. Reviewers at CNET and Money like it too.
Like many other services, LifeLock has three tiers of protection. Its Standard service monitors your credit at only one bureau (Equifax). It also monitors personal info such as your address and SSN on the net and the dark web. It includes lost wallet protection and access to identity restoration experts.
All three tiers of LifeLock come with its Million Dollar Protection package for ID theft insurance. At the Standard level, it provides $25,000 in coverage for stolen funds, $25,000 for personal expenses, and up to $1 million for legal fees. This tier costs $124.99 per year. (All three tiers offer a discount of up to 20% on your first year of service.)
Although LifeLock Standard notifies you about data breaches, it doesn’t send alerts about other threats. To get those, you must upgrade to the $239.99-per-year Advantage tier. It provides alerts on your credit cards and bank accounts, use of your SSN, and crimes committed in your name.
The Advantage tier also provides a yearly copy of your credit report and VantageScore 3.0 credit score from Equifax. And it bumps up your coverage for stolen funds and personal expenses to $100,000 each.
To get three-bureau credit monitoring, you need the Ultra tier at $339.99 per year. This top-level service provides unlimited access to your Equifax credit report and score and monthly access to all three reports and scores. It also monitors 401(k) and investment accounts, home titles, bank account applications, file-sharing networks, and sex offender registry reports.
Other perks of the Ultra tier include alerts about bank account takeovers and live, 24/7 customer support. Plus, it offers $1 million in protection for both stolen funds and personal expenses.
8. myFICO Advanced
Finally, a couple of publications have good things to say about myFICO. This credit monitoring service comes from the people who know credit best — the Fair Isaac Corporation, creators of the FICO score.
The biggest advantage of myFICO is that it gives you access to your FICO score, the type of credit score used by most lenders. (Many other services use the newer VantageScore model instead.) In fact, this service provides up to 28 different versions of your FICO score used by different types of lenders for credit cards, mortgages, and auto loans.
Its biggest downside is price. The most basic level of myFICO monitoring costs almost as much as the top tiers of service from most other companies.
The three available myFICO plans are:
- Basic. For $19.95 per month, this service provides monthly updates on your Experian credit report and credit score only. It comes with $1 million in identity theft insurance and 24/7 access to identity restoration services.
- Advanced. The advanced plan provides access to your credit reports and scores from all three bureaus for $29.95 per month. However, it only provides updates once every three months. It also includes identity monitoring, searching for your personal information on the public and dark web.
- Premier. The top-tier Premier service provides monthly updates on all three credit reports and scores, along with all the other features of the Advanced service. It costs $39.95 per month.
Although myFICO offers good identity protection, it’s not really better than most other credit monitoring services. It’s only worth the higher price if you’re willing to pay extra for the most accurate and useful version of your credit score possible.
Best Free Credit Monitoring Services
Excellent credit monitoring and identity theft protection don’t come cheap. All the paid plans that earn high marks from professional reviewers cost between about $90 and $480 per year.
However, there is another alternative: free credit monitoring services. Instead of charging you a monthly fee, these services make their money through marketing. Every time you log on to check on your credit, you also see targeted offers for credit cards and other financial products.
According to reviewers, these free services don’t offer quite as much protection as the top paid services. However, they’re better than you might expect.
9. CreditWise from Capital One
CreditWise is a free credit monitoring service provided by Capital One bank — not just for its customers, but for anyone. Its benefits include:
- Real-time monitoring of your credit reports from both Experian and TransUnion
- Automatic alerts to any changes in your credit
- VantageScore credit score updates from TransUnion
- Dark web scanning
- Social Security number tracking
- A credit score simulator
If you already use the Capital One mobile app, these features are built right in. If not, you can download the separate CreditWise app to get the same benefits.
CreditWise gets high marks from NBC, CNBC, and TechRadar, which praises its “really good-looking interface.” Reviewer Anna Sevilla says this service actually provides a better-organized version of your TransUnion credit report than the one that comes directly from TransUnion. And because it’s completely free, there’s no downside to trying it.
10. Credit Sesame
Credit Sesame is a free service that monitors your credit report from TransUnion and alerts you to major changes. It also provides monthly updates on your TransUnion credit score. If your identity is stolen, you can get live support to help you restore it, plus $1 million in identity theft insurance — all free of charge.
Other features of the service include:
- A “credit report card” that shows you the various factors affecting your credit score
- Personalized advice on how to improve your score
- Trending graphs that show how your credit score has changed over time
- Offers for lower-interest alternatives to the loans and credit cards you’re using now
Credit Sesame definitely isn’t the most accurate or full-featured credit monitoring service on the market. But it gives you a surprising amount for the low price of nothing at all.
11. Credit Karma
Another service that offers free credit monitoring is Credit Karma. It monitors your credit reports and scores from both TransUnion and Equifax and sends you regular updates. It also alerts you right away to major changes, like a new account or a credit application in your name.
Credit Karma doesn’t include free identity theft insurance as Credit Sesame does. However, unlike Credit Sesame, it provides access to an abbreviated version of your credit reports from Equifax and TransUnion on demand.
It also provides the ability to dispute errors on your TransUnion credit report directly through the website or app. You can’t do that with your Equifax credit report, but the app does provide a direct link to Equifax’s dispute form.
According to NBC, the main downside of Credit Karma is that it doesn’t monitor your Experian credit report. However, if you sign up for both Credit Karma and Experian’s free basic service, you can track all three of your credit reports and scores at no cost.
Based on what I learned from my research, I decided not to take the free credit monitoring in the Equifax settlement. I was already signed up with both Credit Sesame and Credit Karma, so I had on-demand access to two of my three credit reports, plus free identity theft insurance.
On top of that, I’d already frozen my credit. This wouldn’t just alert me if thieves tried to open new credit accounts in my name — it would completely stop them from doing it. It looked like no credit monitoring service could give me better protection than that, so I took the cash.
But that doesn’t mean that’s the right decision for you. Setting up your own identity theft protection system takes time and effort, and for some people, it’s just not worth the hassle.
If you decide you’d rather have a service do the work of monitoring your credit and protecting your identity, choose one that gives you your money’s worth. That could mean signing up for free credit monitoring or shelling out a couple hundred bucks per year for truly top-tier service. It’s all a question of what helps you sleep at night.