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. For instance, Javelin Strategy & Research conducts a detailed review of the field each year. Business sites like CNBC, news sites like NBC, and tech publications like Tech Radar and CNET also 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 several tiers of credit monitoring. The most basic plan, Equifax Monitor, costs $4.95 per month. It provides regular access to and monitoring of your Equifax credit report and your VantageScore credit score, the leading alternative to the standard FICO credit score. You can sign up to receive alerts whenever there are changes in your credit report or score.
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.
The next tier up is called Equifax Complete. It provides all the same features as Equifax Monitor, plus extra identity theft protection features. If you become a victim of identity theft, a team of ID restoration specialists from Equifax works on your behalf to help you recover. The service also provides up to $500,000 in identity theft insurance to cover the cost of restoring your identity.
One additional feature is the ability to put a fraud alert on your account. You can activate this feature if you suspect you’ve been a victim of fraud. It encourages lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity before opening a new account in your name. This tier costs $9.95 per month.
The top tier, Equifax Complete Premier, costs $19.95 per month.This tier provides three-bureau credit monitoring, rather than the single-bureau monitoring of the two lower tiers. 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. However, that also means 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, such as new credit inquiries, new accounts, and changes to your personal information.
In addition, when you sign up for Experian’s free service, it does a one-time scan of the dark web for signs of your phone number, email address, and Social Security number. That’s a lot of benefits for no cost, which is why both CNBC and TechRadar recommend it as one of the top free credit monitoring services.
However, if you want still 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
- $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.
Experian also offers a separate service called Experian Boost. It doesn’t monitor your credit report or score, but it can help you improve your credit. It lets you add on-time payments for phone and utility bills to your Experian credit file, allowing you to build credit without a credit card.
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. Its benefits include:
- 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 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
In its 2020 report, Javelin Research rated TransUnion’s service the best in its class, citing its “ability to address multiple types of fraud with minimal impact to the consumer.” However, this review isn’t entirely unbiased because, according to CNET, Javelin is the provider of TransUnion’s identity protection services. The service costs $24.95 per month.
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.
Interestingly, some of the best-known brands in identity protection, such as LifeLock and Identity Guard, don’t make the cut in most sources. By contrast, some lesser-known brands get recommended over and over.
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, including court records, banks, medical bills, the National Change of Address (NCOA) database, payday lenders, social media, and the dark web. It even checks for your identity on sex offender registries. This service costs $18 per month or $180 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 also has a 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 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 $24 per month or $240 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 name, Social Security number, and 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 monitors your credit reports from all three bureaus, alerting 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. myFICO Advanced
Finally, numerous 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 provides 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 gives you access 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 $120 to $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.
7. 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
- Weekly 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 particularly 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.
8. 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 and $50,000 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
- Free estimates of your home’s current value and your home equity
- Tools for setting and meeting financial goals
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.
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.
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.
According to NBC, the only real 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 $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 per year for truly top-tier service. It’s all a question of what helps you sleep at night.