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Best identity theft protection and monitoring services for 2021

Is someone applying for a mortgage in your name? Ruining your credit? The best identity theft protection and monitoring services can help you find out -- and fight back.

Looking to protect your identity? You're not the only one. Data breaches are occurring with increasing regularity, putting individuals' personal information, including social security number, bank account and more at risk.

If you're concerned about your personal information, you might want to start using an identity theft protection and monitoring service for ID protection and more. Fortunately, our selections for the best identity theft protection and monitoring services can help safeguard your identity, proactively monitor suspicious activity and assist with recovery if you become a victim of a data breach.   

If the current trends are anything to go by, ID theft protection is only going to become more essential. In 2019 alone, there were more than 13 million US identity fraud cases, with victims losing nearly $17 billion, not to mention untold damage to credit reports. The 2017 Equifax breach was the icing on a nasty cake -- one that got even worse in the following years. One of the biggest 2020 data breaches was the Marriott hack, which impacted over 5 million customers. That followed an earlier breach of Marriott's Starwood reservation system, in which the personal information of more than 380 million guests was compromised, including more than 5 million passport numbers.

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If someone has your Social Security number and personal info, they can begin applying for loans and a credit card in your name.

James Martin/CNET

In this directory, we'll look at some of the best identity theft protection service options for helping you manage and protect your identity at various price points. We'll also help you learn the difference between an identity theft protection company and a credit monitoring service (though they might have overlapping services). Before we get started though, we should tell you that you don't necessarily have to spend $10 to $30 a month for the best identity theft protection service. The US government offers identitytheft.gov, an identity restoration service that can help an identity theft victim report and recover from identity theft.

Read more: How to prevent identity theft

We'll jump straight to the top choices for the best identity theft protection service options for ID monitoring, credit monitoring and more, but read to the end to see additional important information and facts about identity theft and ID protection. The list is updated frequently.

LifeLock has come a long way since the days when it was subject to multiple Federal Trade Commission investigations (settled in 2015) and various lawsuits from customers and credit reporting agencies. In 2017, it became a subsidiary of Symantec, purchased for $2.3 billion.

You may recall the ads where LifeLock's founder posted his Social Security number everywhere, as a statement in his confidence about LifeLock's protection services. While he did experience numerous instances of identity theft based on those Social Security number postings, LifeLock's theft protection services helped him recover.

The company offers a wide range of identity monitoring service and protection options, including stolen wallet protection, ID verification monitoring, home title monitoring and checking/savings account application alerts. 

LifeLock's protection services range from $9 a month to $26 a month the first year. Terms apply. Reimbursement of $25,000 to $1 million is available, depending on the monitoring plan. The lower-priced protection services monitor credit only from one credit bureau. The $26-a-month identity theft protection plan monitors all three major credit bureaus. You can pull credit reports once a year, but the service will provide you with a credit score monthly, based on Experian data.

SSN and credit alerts, dark web monitoring, alerts on suspicious activity like crimes committed in your name and credit card activity and fraud alert services are all marks in LifeLock's favor, despite its past stumbles.

Base price: $107.88 a year or $9 a month after 25% discount.

 

IdentityForce offers two tiers of service: UltraSecure and UltraSecure Plus Credit, the latter of which includes credit reports and scores. We liked how the credit score monitoring not only watches all three reporting agencies but provides a visual tracker that lets you examine your credit rating over time.

IdentityForce identity theft protection monitoring includes quite a lot beyond credit information. It checks for public information record changes, address changes, court and arrest records, payday loan applications, and checks for identity information on a variety of illicit identity-sharing websites to act as a guard dog from identity thieves. The company also monitors sex offender registries to see if your name is associated with such things. We also like that it tracks SSNs for new usages or associations with new names.

Its mobile app has been updated with a feature called Mobile Attack Control. This monitors your smartphone for spyware, insecure Wi-Fi locations, as well as "spoof" networks (networks that act as if they're legitimate connections, but they're not). Additionally, the phone app will present alerts if there are security issues monitored by IdentityForce that need immediate attention.

The company did not disclose frequency of service monitoring (beyond credit reporting agencies). That said, we liked how the company has an interesting credit score simulator which can help you understand how different balances, payments and balance transfers might have an impact on your credit score. IdentityForce offers a 14-day free trial version. 

Right now, the UltraSecure program is $100 per year ($9 per month, with two free months). UltraSecure Plus Credit for individuals is usually $287.88 per year ($24 per month), but through the end of December 2021, CNET readers can get it for $179.90 per year ($18 per month).

Base price: $100 a year or $10 a month.

 

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Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

The big pitch for Identity Guard is that it's powered by IBM's Watson. Earlier versions of Watson have done everything from winning at Jeopardy to helping doctors diagnose cancer. The version of Watson powering Identity Guard is, as you'd expect, focused on identity theft.

Identity Guard's use of Watson involves building a corpus of knowledge and continuing to feed it information from many different sources, including social networks. There's no doubt the Watson-enabled service can help advise you on identity management. Its service monitors the customer's personal information, including their credit files, DOB and SSN.

Identity Guard offers a clear summary of its insurance terms. The company offers a basic plan at $80-a-year, but it provides no credit monitoring. If you want monthly credit report updates, that jumps to $160 a year and includes credit monitoring from three credit bureaus and a monthly credit score. Its most comprehensive plan is the Identity Guard Premier plan, which costs $200 a year and includes annual credit reports. 

Complete ID

Complete ID is a service provided by Experian, one of the big three credit reporting agencies. The service has a special deal with Costco: Costco Executive members pay $9 a month plus an optional $3 a month for child protection. Gold Star Costco members pay $14 a month and an optional $4 a month for child protection. Non-Costco members pay $20 a month.

Complete ID provides an annual credit report from the three agencies. It also offers monthly credit scores and provides a nice graph over time so you can see how your score has improved.

The identity monitoring service offers monitoring for unauthorized use of your Social Security number and other noncredit identity monitoring to help prevent you from being the victim of stolen identity. A valuable feature is its neighborhood watch, updated monthly, which provides details on sexual predators and crimes in your area.

As with all of the services we're spotlighting, Complete ID offers $1 million in limited identity theft insurance. And unlike some of the competitors listed here, it has a clear summary of benefits. Base price (non-Costco members): $239.88 a year.

Base price (for Costco members): $107.88 a year.

 

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Angela Lang/CNET

ID Watchdog describes its service as "True Identity Protection." The company's big differentiator is helping you recover after you've been the victim of an identity theft experience. It offers a guarantee of "100% identity theft resolution," but the fine print introduces some notable limits.

First, the company will only help you if it detects a new incident of fraud while you're an active customer. It doesn't guarantee you'll get back any money you lost, but it will provide access to its team of "Certified Identity Theft Risk Management Specialists (CITRMS)."

Like all the other commercial identity monitoring services we've profiled in this directory, ID Watchdog offers a $1 million identity theft insurance policy. But that policy's exact terms, limits and benefits aren't spelled out until you complete the signup process.

The base program doesn't provide a credit report or credit score information, but if you sign up for the premium $219-per-year service, you can get a copy of your credit report and your credit score. The catch? You get that report once a year. You can already do that yourself, for free, by going to annualcreditreport.com.

While the company says that it provides monitoring services, it does not specify, anywhere in its terms and conditions, how often it performs checks for each type of service it monitors.

Base price: $164 a year or $15 a month.

 

One of Identity Fraud's stand-out features is price. It has the second lowest entry-level price of any of the services we explored. The company also offers a business cybercrime protection service called BizLock.

Identity Fraud's personal service is $100 a year, with a bump to $160 a year for credit reporting and monitoring. Like all our other identity theft prevention contenders, Identity Fraud offers $1 million in fraud insurance (except for those in New York state, where the limit is $25,000 in coverage), with a $0 deductible. And we like that Identity Fraud's insurance benefits are clear and easy to find.

The company does provide a credit score, but it's limited only to data from TransUnion, one of the three credit-reporting agencies. The company will send you a monthly "no news is good news" email if your identity has had a quiet month. It also offers lost wallet services, along with identity resolution and prevention assistance.

Base price: $100 a year or $10 a month.

 

Intelius picked up points because it allows members to pull a new credit report every 31 days. Most services provide credit reports only once a year. While the monthly reports represent only one of the three credit bureaus, reports from all three bureaus can be purchased.

The company also offers its own Intelius Identity Protect score, which is not a FICO score, but is similar and can be used to gauge how your credit would perform for loans and financial institutions and transactions. As with many of our other services, Intelius provides record monitoring services.

The company allows you to monitor two addresses, two phone numbers, three credit or debit cards, and two bank account numbers, providing broader coverage than some of its competitors. Furthermore, it offers clear details (PDF link) on its $1 million identity theft insurance coverage.

We also like how the company offers a junk postal mail opt-out service it calls "Junk Mail Reduction," designed to reduce the number of credit card offers you get, and therefore the number of pings against your credit records. 

Intelius Identity Protect offers a trial version. 

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Getty Images

PrivacyGuard offers a 14-day trial program, but instead of it being free, you have to pay a buck. So while you can still see if you like the program, the company loses all the friction-reducing benefits of trial-to-live conversions by requiring users to jump through that dollar hoop at the beginning of the relationship. Go figure.

Beyond the slightly shoot-themselves-in-the-foot trial program, PrivacyGuard provides many of the usual credit and identity protection services offered by its competitors. It offers daily credit monitoring, a key value in protecting a person's identity against identity thieves, and a frequency level sorely lacking among many of the company's competitors.

PrivacyGuard's base $10-per-month program does record scans. A $20-a-month program does credit scans. A $25-per-month program does both. Like most other vendors, Privacy Guard offers a $1 million policy. Prior to signing up, the company provides some information about the policy's benefits and limitations, but not enough for it to be useful for making a purchasing decision.

PrivacyGuard updates credit scores monthly and monitors public records and Social Security Numbers. It also offers a yearly public records report, which provides all of the public records information it's found in one clear document.

PrivacyGuard offers a trial version.

Base price: $119.88 a year.

 

McAfee's identity theft protection service is the least expensive we've seen for a year of coverage. It does have a $1 trial for the first month, but you can get a full year for $70, which is substantially less expensive than the other players we've discussed here (although it's five bucks more per year than the $65 price the company offered last year).

It offers a slick "cyber monitoring" service that constantly scans for credit activity and alerts you if something unusual happens. The company does monitor your Experian credit file but doesn't connect to either TransUnion or Equifax.

As with most other vendors, it offers to reimburse up to $1 million for identity recovery (unless you're in New York state), and its recovery service will also return up to $10,000 in stolen funds. As an added benefit, if you lose your wallet, the company will do its best to reissue "a variety of contents from IDs and credit cards to concert tickets."

McAfee is probably best known as an antivirus company founded by its very eccentric eponymous founder, John McAfee. In 2011, Intel bought the company and renamed it Intel Security Group but by 2017, McAfee (now known as McAfee, LLC) was back out on its own, having been spun out to TPG Capital (although Intel still owns a minority stake).

We're telling you all this because the company's DNA is very clearly antivirus. A presales call to the company asking about its identity theft program first resulted in complete confusion about how many devices we wanted antivirus installed on, and then, once transferred to the "identity theft department," culminated in our editor attempting to explain to the rep what credit reporting agencies did and why you'd care about them.

That doesn't mean the product itself is bad. Fortunately, just about all of this service is automated and there's never been any question about McAfee's software chops. If its automated systems see odd behavior for one of your tracked accounts, those alerts may be your first and best protection when you need to secure your credit.

The company actually offers three tiers of identity protection service. Its Standard plan is the aforementioned $70 for the first year. 

If you're willing to pay $140 per year for the Plus plan, you also get an annual credit report, a single-bureau credit score, court and criminal record monitoring, and non-credit loan monitoring. This isn't quite as good a deal as it seems, because the US Federal Trade Commission provides free annual credit reports to any American citizen.

Finally, McAfee offers a Premium plan that offers everything in the Standard and Plus plans, plus bank account takeover monitoring, credit card application monitoring and sex offender monitoring (which alerts you when new convicted sex offenders register in your area).

Base price: $70.

 

What about Equifax and TrustedID?

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Equifax

Ah, Equifax. If you already have an ID monitoring service, it may well be because of this company, which is the poster child for bad security. One of the big three credit reporting agencies, Equifax had no less than five major data breaches in 2017, affecting nearly every American who has a credit history. In the months that followed, we learned that things may have somehow even been worse than originally known.

And the company's ham-fisted response to each data breach made matters worse: At one point, the company was directing users to a fake help site. And the site it set up to provide free credit account monitoring after the data breach was originally also vulnerable to hackers.

Heads rolled, executives left, and the company's reputation is in tatters. And yet, thanks to a tepid response from the federal government, it's unclear if anything has really changed. Equifax remains one of at least three companies -- Experian and TransUnion being the other two big ones -- that pass judgment on whether we're all credit-worthy. 

For better or worse, many people took advantage of Equifax's offer of a free year's membership to TrustedID, its commercial identity theft service? But that offer -- originally available to anyone with a Social Security number -- has ended. (It required that you register by Jan. 31, 2018.)

The service provides a copy of your Equifax credit report, a lock on your Equifax data by third parties (with some exceptions), credit monitoring from all three credit bureaus, monitoring of your SSN on what Equifax calls "suspicious" websites, and a very limited $1 million identity theft insurance policy.

We understand if you took advantage of the offer while it was free. That said, we just can't recommend doing business with a company that has demonstrated such contempt for security protocols -- let alone customers. Any of the alternative protection services listed above would be a better option. 


Pricing compared

The base prices of each service are presented below, from lowest to highest. Note that the more expensive ones almost always offer additional perks, such as more frequent credit reports from credit bureaus. 

ID monitoring yearly pricing

Service Base yearly price Offers free trial?
Identity Guard $80 No
Identity Fraud $100 No
Complete ID (Costco members) $107.88 No
LifeLock $107.88 No*
PrivacyGuard $119.88 $1 for 14 days
ID Watchdog $164.00 No
IdentityForce $149.90 Yes
Intelius Identity Protect $239.40 Yes
Complete ID (non-Costco members) $239.88 No

*Offers 60-day money back guarantee.


Identity theft: What you need to know

These are some key things to keep in mind about the best identity theft protection and ID monitoring services.

Early detection is the key. If you're signing up for one of these protection services, it's less about preventing the initial breach and saving you from being a victim of identity theft -- that's somewhat out of your hands, unfortunately. Instead, it's about getting a heads-up as soon as possible on suspicious activity to prevent you from needing to do a credit freeze or more to stop an identity thief. Whether your credit card has charges on it you never incurred, or you suddenly discover that loan collectors are trying to collect amounts you never borrowed, thanks to thieves halfway across the country -- or thieves halfway around the world -- who opened a credit card or applied for a loan in your name, seeing the suspicious activity early on is the name of the game. The scary fact is that these breaches can cost you a lot of money and identity theft monitoring can alert you to a problem before it becomes too big to handle.

Knowing how your personal information is being used is a big step to keeping yourself safe. There are identity theft protection companies that can help you monitor your personal information, get notified if your accounts and personal information are being misused by thieves and if you should get a credit freeze, and even get you reimbursement after the fact.

None of these protection services will monitor your actual banking activity. I have long recommended a way to protect yourself from becoming a victim of most banking fraud, which is to examine all your accounts once a week. It's a bit of a pain, but just in my family, we've found numerous fraudulent activities and charges over the years. By doing this practice regularly, we've saved thousands of dollars. Consumer Reports recommends you do all your own monitoring, too. 

That said, if you're not the type of person who is willing or able to take the time to do the constant due diligence necessary to protect your identity, some of these protection services can help. 

Read the fine print. Finally, because each of these protection services offers vastly different terms and conditions, we've included an easy link to each company's terms of service. Be sure to take the time to read all of their fine print before you sign up for another monthly or yearly fee.

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