When I talk about identity theft in public forums, the subject of credit reports comes up very frequently. There are a lot of places online advertising a free online credit report, but when you go to the site you don’t find any way to get all of your personal credit information without paying. There are a whole series of commercials on TV for a specific site – FreeCreditReport.com – which offers a free credit report from Experian, but no obvious way to check your other credit reports. This leads many consumers to believe that they can only get their credit report free from Experian, but that isn’t the case.
For starters, FreeCreditReport.com is “part of a family of online consumer credit reporting sites belonging to ConsumerInfo.com, Inc., an Experian company.” The company actually makes their money by selling a credit monitoring service for $14.95 per month, but there are a couple of catches. The biggest catch I’ve spotted with the program is that if when they enroll you for personal credit monitoring, they simply submit your information to the credit report companies to enroll in their monitoring programs. If one of the companies can’t automatically enroll you for some reason, FreeCreditReport.com will monitor the ones that can enroll you with no break in price. It seems that the problem is on the consumer to resolve with the other credit reporting company.
What Experian has done here is turn a Federal law (FACTA) into a way to make more money off the consumer. By offering a free online credit report, you are drawn to the site thinking you can get your credit report free… simple logic. All it seems you can get for free through this site, though, is your personal credit report from Experian. But there are two other companies that collect your credit information – TransUnion and Equifax. You can also get a free credit report from these companies.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you want to get your free credit report from all three of these agencies, and you don’t want to subscribe to any services to get them. The government has provided just such a service – AnnualCreditReport.com. Here you can conveniently access your free online credit report with no fuss – the site will take you to each of the specific companies’ online access where you can view and print your credit report.
Since your credit report will usually be the same with each of the credit reporting agencies, I have always recommended that clients make use of this free service by checking only one of the agencies in the first 4 months of the year, check another in the next 4 months, and the last one during the final 4 months of the year. This allows you to keep tabs on your personal credit throughout the year, and be fairly proactive with any disputes you might have. Keep in mind, however, that this is by no means a foolproof method for protecting yourself against identity theft.
So, is it important to have a credit monitoring service? Everyone needs to decide that for themselves, of course. Personally, credit monitoring is part of my protection program. But there are two things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about credit monitoring. The first, and most important, is that credit monitoring doesn’t do anything to prevent identity theft. It can be a warning that something is wrong, but it’s like a smoke-detector… it will only let you know once there is a problem. More importantly, it doesn’t do anything to help you fix the problem either. When I talk about how to protect yourself from identity theft, I make sure people understand that.
The bigger thing to keep in mind, though, is that financial identity theft is only one type of identity theft. Monitoring your credit does nothing to help you with the more dangerous forms of identity theft, such as criminal identity theft, or medical identity theft.
And if you have a problem like that, you'll wish they'd just gone after your money.