Credit Monitoring – How does it protect you from identity theft and what service does it really offer?
We have been asked over the past 5 years if Credit Monitoring is worth having and if we can provide this service.
Credit Monitoring is a huge business and with scores being so important it will continue to grow. How many times have you seen promotional offers for the opportunity to get free monitoring of your credit profile? It is so confusing for most to even understand their credit reports let alone what the monitoring services provide and how they can help. The information given by these services is difficult to decipher and can sometimes do more to confuse and scare consumers than help them.
I have been studying these services and learning about them for many years now. The one question I have is how can finding out you are a victim of identity theft or credit card fraud protect you? Once you know you are a victim it is already too late. When you begin to see signs of identity theft on your credit report the damage has already been done. Logically expecting Credit Monitoring to protect you from identity theft would be like studying for an exam after you fail. Identity theft is a process and the last result of it is seeing accounts on your credit report that do not belong to you. These accounts are usually in default with late payments or have gone to the point of collection or charge off.
Collections – are accounts that have not been paid at all and have been sent by the original creditor to a third party collection agency or the collection department of the creditor. Collection agencies may be lent the debt for a commission and if they are successful in collecting funds from the debtor they earn that commission. Other collection agencies buy the debt from the creditor for a reduced amount and they become full owner of whatever is collected. Once you understand this you can also see why they are so aggressive about getting consumers to make payments.
Charge offs- are when creditors write the amount the consumer owes, that has been uncollectable, off as a loss against their profits. This does not mean the consumer no longer owes the money.
So how can credit monitoring stop identity theft? The answer is it can’t. The only thing credit monitoring can do in regards to identity theft is to tell you that it is occurring. Another problem is many consumers buy credit monitoring because they are too busy to learn about their credit or just don’t want the responsibility of understanding it. They think that paying a company to monitor their credit will insure them against any problems. In many cases when the monitoring company alerts them to a new collection or charge off if they don’t recognize the account they just shrug it off as an error and don’t investigate the occurrence until they have a problem getting financing. The lesson is even when having credit monitoring you need to understand, at least, the basics of credit to recognize what is a cause for concern.
We are consistently approached by consumers with this question “I had an alert from my monitoring company. What does this mean?”. Credit monitoring companies provide basic updates to you about changes in your credit. Depending on the company hired and the specific program they offer will determine how you are updated and what information they will give you. Some companies only provide you with info about 1 credit reporting agency. Since there are 3 credit reporting agencies Trans Union, Experian, and Equifax this is just a piece of the information needed to really monitor your credit profile. One of the risks you take when hiring a monitoring service, that provides you with only one report update, is not being able to see if a collection is reported on all bureaus. Many smaller creditor’s like Verizon,Doctors,Dentists, and Health Clubs don’t want to pay the credit reporting agencies to provide each credit profile with this collection info since they will have to pay 3 times for this service. The result is they typically pay one reporting agency instead of all three and only put the collection on that one credit report. If you have picked the report that isn’t updated you will not be aware of this problem until all three reports are pulled. In this case the whole point of monitoring your credit will be lost.
When a monitoring service only alerts you that a change has occurred and does not tell you what the details of the change are we find consumers in a panic. They now know there is a change but don’t have any idea what changed. You can be updated of an alert when a 3rd party pulls your credit profile if you are shopping for a car, home, or business loan. You may be updated with an alert when you open or close an account or have a new late payment. Alerts come when balances change as well. If you don’t have details on what the alert is you will be in a continual state of panic. Credit is not stagnant and with so many changes happening daily these alerts could come all the time, daily, weekly, or monthly depending on how active your credit profile is. You can see there is much homework to do when deciding on a monitoring service. If you are highly educated about your credit and monitoring services it could be helpful for keeping you aware of the general picture of your credit portfolio. If you are uneducated or don’t have the time to keep track of your current credit situation it could be a source of continual anxiety and frustration.
Education is the key to staying updated on your credit and its significance to your financial life. There are other ways to protect yourself against identity theft and credit card fraud and we will address them in this 2 part series.
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