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? Or would I get just as much protection using a free credit monitoring service and taking the cash? I’d have to do some research.
I discovered that services from the credit bureaus, other paid credit monitoring providers, and even free services aren’t 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 big 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.
It’s easy to see how the credit bureaus’ services stack up against the competition by consulting Javelin Strategy & Research’s 2018 report on credit monitoring and identity protection services. It rates 20 different providers across three categories: how well they prevent identity theft, how well they detect it when it occurs, and how they help users resolve problems and restore their identities afterward.
Some of the credit bureaus’ monitoring services are better than others. But according to the Javelin report, none are in the top tier for paid services.
1. Equifax Complete Family Plan
Equifax offers several tiers of credit monitoring. The Javelin one reviewed is its Complete Family Plan, which provides credit monitoring for two adults. On paper, it seems like it has a lot of valuable features.
- Tracks your credit reports from all three credit bureaus and alerts you to changes
- Gives you annual access to your credit reports and scores from all three bureaus and unlimited access to your Equifax score
- Checks for your personal information on black-market websites and alerts you if it’s found
- Alerts you to suspicious activity in your bank or credit card accounts
- Puts fraud alerts on your accounts to encourage lenders to verify your identity before opening a new account
- Lets you lock your Equifax credit report entirely (so no one can access it) and unlock it when you need to – both with a simple swipe of the finger
- Helps with canceling and replacing all your cards and ID if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen
- Covers you with up to $1 million in identity theft insurance for your out-of-pocket costs if someone steals your identity
That sounds like a lot of protection. But according to Javelin, this credit monitoring service does a below-average job of protecting your identity. In all three categories – prevention, detection, and resolution – it’s No. 12 or 13 out of 20 competitors. Of course, if you’re getting it for free as part of the Equifax settlement, it’s a lot better than nothing. But if you’re looking for top-tier protection, this isn’t it.
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. However, that also means anyone who steals your cellphone might be able to shut you out of your own credit report.
2. Experian IdentityWorks
Experian’s identity theft protection service, called IdentityWorks, has two tiers. Its basic service, IdentityWorks Plus, monitors the dark web for signs of your personal information and alerts you to changes in your legal address. It also monitors your Experian credit report, lets you lock and unlock your report with a single click, and includes $500,000 in identity theft insurance. You can customize this service to cover just yourself or add other adults and children for an extra fee.
IdentityWorks Premium costs about twice as much as IdentityWorks Plus, but it 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 Social Security number and notifies you if a registered sex offender moves into your neighborhood. And it ups your identity theft insurance to $1 million.
Both Plus and Premium levels come with a 30-day free trial.
Javelin gave Experian’s plan a higher rating than Equifax’s. It’s above average for preventing and detecting identity theft, but a bit below average for resolving it. However, Javelin didn’t specify whether this rating is for the Plus or Premium tier.
Based on the Equifax settlement page, it appears IdentityWorks is not the service included as part of the settlement. Instead, the settlement appears to provide four years of Experian’s credit monitoring service, called CreditWorks Premium, which monitors your credit report across all three bureaus. It provides monthly updates, lets you lock and unlock your Experian credit report, and provides $1 million in identity theft insurance and assistance dealing with identity theft or fraud. It does not have the other monitoring features included with IdentityWorks.
3. TransUnion TrueIdentity
TransUnion’s identity protection service, called TrueIdentity, provides less protection than Equifax’s or Experian’s. It monitors only your TransUnion credit report, allows you to lock and unlock it with a swipe, and provides only $25,000 in identity theft insurance. However, you can’t beat the price – it’s completely free. TransUnion also has a free separate instant alerts feature that sends you an email alert if someone tries to open a new credit account in your name.
Javelin didn’t review the free TrueIdentity service. However, it reviewed a paid version of the service that’s no longer available and was not impressed. It was near the middle of the pack for preventing identity theft, which Javelin calls “arguably the most crucial of the three categories.” It was near the bottom of the rankings for detecting identity theft and dead last for resolving it.
Like Experian, TransUnion also offers a separate credit monitoring service, which actually provides a bit more protection than TrueIdentity. It monitors your TransUnion credit report and score, allows you to lock and unlock both your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports, and provides $1 million in identity theft insurance. However, the Javelin report didn’t cover this service.
Best Paid Credit Monitoring Services
Several other paid services fared much better in Javelin’s report than those available through the credit bureaus. While many services were above average in at least one of the categories Javelin tested, there were only a few that consistently scored well in all of them.
4. IdentityForce (Merged With EZShield)
One consistently strong performer in Javelin’s tests is IdentityForce. Its UltraSecure plan ranks No. 8 out of 20 for prevention, 6 out of 20 for detection, and 2 out of 20 for resolution.
The version of IdentityForce Javelin reviewed isn’t the same as the current version. Since the report came out, the maker of IdentityForce has merged with another service, EZShield, to form a new company called Sontiq. However, since EZShield itself was the runaway winner in Javelin’s report, with top marks in every single category, it’s likely the current product is even stronger as a result of this merger.
IdentityForce monitors use of your personal information from a wide variety of sources, including banks, auto dealers, government agencies, the National Change of Address (NCOA) database, payday lenders, social media, and the dark web. It also monitors sex offender registries for offenders who move into your neighborhood. If it finds a problem, it sends you alerts via text and email.
IdentityForce also promises you control over your data. It gives you access to your medical records and offers tools to help you reduce junk mail, protect your computer from malware, and detect email phishing scams. It also has a special feature to help you quickly and easily replace credit, debit, and ATM cards if you lose your wallet or purse.
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 also offers $1 million in identity theft insurance.
But you have to upgrade – for an additional fee – to get monitoring of your credit reports from all three bureaus and full access to your credit report and score.
5. ID Watchdog
Another top-rated protection service in the Javelin report is ID Watchdog. Its Platinum service is near the top of the list at No. 2 for both preventing and detecting identity theft and above average for resolving it. It offers a host of credit monitoring and identity theft protection features.
- Monitors your credit reports from all three bureaus and alerts you to any changes
- Offers access to your three-bureau credit report and score at any time
- Checks official records – such as courts, elections, and the NCOA database – for signs of identity theft
- Checks for payday loans and other personal loans in your name
- Looks for your personal information on the black market
- Provides a team of specialists to remove fraudulent records and restore your identity
ID Watchdog also offers a less expensive plan, called ID Watchdog Plus. It provides most of the same services as the Platinum plan, but it monitors only your TransUnion credit report instead of all three and doesn’t provide access to your credit report or credit score.
Perhaps the best known of all identity protection services is LifeLock. In addition to monitoring your credit file, this service looks for online payday loans, other online loans, and unauthorized address changes in your name. It also checks the dark web for your Social Security number and other personal information. LifeLock comes with security software from Norton, protecting your computer from malware and email scams.
LifeLock’s basic service, Norton 360 with LifeLock, alerts you to changes in your Equifax credit report and illicit uses of your Social Security number. It also provides up to $25,000 in coverage for identity theft. Along with these benefits, you get security software for up to five devices.
For a few extra bucks per month, the Norton 360 with LifeLock Advantage plan alerts you to suspicious bank and credit card activity and crimes committed in your name. It also increases the coverage for identity theft to $100,000 and the number of protected devices to 10.
The top-tier plan, LifeLock Ultimate Plus, provides $1 million in coverage, a yearly copy of your credit report and score from all three credit bureaus, and security software for an unlimited number of devices. It also alerts you to suspicious investment activity in your name.
Javelin names LifeLock Ultimate Plus one of the top three services for preventing and resolving identity theft and says it’s above average at detecting it. However, this service is a bit more expensive than most of its competitors.
Although it’s not at the top of the rankings in any of Javelin’s categories, PrivacyGuard is a strong overall contender. This company offers three different services.
- ID Protection. This service checks for your personal information regularly with a variety of sources: credit card issuers, retailers, telecom companies, public records, Internet directory sites, search engines, and black-market dealers on the dark web. It alerts you promptly to any signs of fraud and provides tools to guide you through the recovery process. It also has tools to reduce prescreened credit offers and help you deal with a lost wallet. This service comes with $1 million in identity theft insurance.
- Credit Protection. This service focuses on credit monitoring rather than identity protection. It monitors your credit reports from all three bureaus, alerting you to any changes, and provides a copy of your credit score once a month. This service also includes a credit simulator tool, a budgeting tool, several loan calculators, and access to a credit hotline. This hotline connects you with experts who can answer questions about your credit and help you dispute errors in your credit report.
- Total Protection. PrivacyGuard’s top-tier service provides all the benefits of ID Protection and Credit Protection combined. Javelin rates this plan No. 4 out of 20 for preventing and resolving identity theft, and 9 out of 20 for detecting it.
All three PrivacyGuard plans come with a two-week trial period. You pay a nominal fee to test the service for 14 days, after which the price jumps up to the regular monthly rate.
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 Javelin range from about $180 to $420 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. These free services don’t offer as much protection as the top paid services or even the ones from the credit bureaus. But they’re better than you might expect.
8. Credit Sesame
Credit Sesame offers a choice of either free or paid credit monitoring. The free version monitors your credit report from TransUnion, alerting you to major changes, and provides you with monthly updates on your TransUnion credit score. It also comes with $50,000 in identity theft insurance.
Javelin didn’t review Credit Sesame’s free service, but it did review its paid Platinum Plan. This service offers the same perks as the free plan plus some extras, such as three-bureau monitoring, regular updates, and access to experts who can help you deal with problems. In Javelin’s tests, this plan scored below average in all categories: 11 out of 20 for prevention, 18 out of 20 for detection, and 12 out of 20 for resolution. It’s definitely not the best service on the market. But it’s better than some other services that cost even more.
9. 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. Plus, unlike Credit Sesame, it provides access to an abbreviated version of your credit report from these two bureaus on demand.
Credit Karma doesn’t include free identity theft insurance as Credit Sesame does. However, it offers one feature Credit Sesame doesn’t have: the ability to notify you if a data breach exposes your email address.
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 $50,000 in 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 a year for truly top-tier service. It’s all a question of what helps you sleep at night.
Have you used any of these credit monitoring services? Would you recommend it?