With an ever-increasing tempo of third-party breaches spilling consumer data all across the dark web, a natural impulse for a security-savvy user is to do something proactive to protect their sensitive information. After Equifax, there was an explosion of interest in credit monitoring and identity theft protection services. But most of these services offer limited value for the money, and in many cases, are subsidiaries of entities prone to leaking information in the first place. Sometimes doing something isn’t always the best option.
What do they do?
Before we get into the problems with identity theft protection services, let’s break down which services are actually offered, and in exchange for what. Identity protection services usually start by collecting your personal information, including the following:
- your birthdate
- your social security number
- your address
- your email address(es)
- your phone number(s)
A company like Lifelock would then use “proprietary technology that searches for a wide range of threats to your identity.” (Sidenote: Subsuming an entire discussion of one’s product under “technology that searches” is usually a red flag, albeit a small one.) If any threats are found, they will notify you and provide some handholding to rectify the situation. In addition, they offer an insurance policy that provides reimbursement of any monetary losses. Starting price for these services runs around $109 per year.
IdentityWorks is another service run by one of the major credit bureaus, Experian. IdentityWorks has an introductory product for $9.99 per month that offers credit monitoring, a credit lock (something different from a freeze), identity theft insurance, and a customer service line for fraud resolution.
IdentityForce tends to be ranked higher in comparison to other services. They provide credit monitoring, bank account monitoring (not found in most other products), change of address monitoring, court record monitoring, as well as general personal information protection. Their recovery services are mostly the same though, including a customer service line for fraud resolution, identity theft protection insurance, and stolen funds replacement up to $1 million, depending on where you live. Standard cost is $17.95 per month.
Why shouldn’t I buy it?
Brian Krebs, a security researcher who’s arguably one of the biggest public targets for identity theft and financial crime, wrote a blog on credit monitoring services, stating that while some of these and other ID protection services are helpful for those who’ve already been snaked by ID thieves, they don’t do much to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.
Searching the darknet for your personal information is something advertised by almost all of these companies. What they don’t disclose is that a darknet site is almost always hosted on a “bulletproof” hosting service that will not respond to takedown requests or legal threats. So while essentially anybody can fire up the TOR browser and find your social security number on a dark website, almost nobody (including those in ID protection services) can actually do anything about it. All they can do is alert you.
Our big issue with paying for an identity theft protection service—besides the fact that the service doesn’t actually protect against identity theft—is that the insurance you would be forking out for is coverage most users already have under Visa and Mastercard zero liability rules. Another is the narrow focus on credit, typically to the exclusion of bank accounts, mortgage loans, and tax fraud. Lastly, account application notifications can’t actually prevent creditors from doing a “hard pull” on your credit, which dings your credit score.
Who else is looking at your data?
Somewhat more concerning is the lack of transparency concerning where these companies draw their data for analysis and alerting. Lifelock, in particular, outsources its credit monitoring services to… Equifax. In September of this year, the LA Times reported the relationship with Lifelock and Equifax, noting that in some instances, purchasing services would require the end user to give Equifax more information than it would otherwise have.
Does anyone, anywhere, want to give more personal data to Equifax?
How many competing companies also rely on the credit bureaus for monitoring services? While Equifax was the loudest and most recent breach in memory, odds are good that the other credit bureaus operating on an identical business model have identical security practices. As a reminder, Experian offers its own service, IdentityWorks, backed by data services it does not disclose and personal information you did not consent to give.
As well as the red flags above, there’s some slightly more ambiguous questions regarding these services that users should evaluate before purchase. For example: Is it a responsible threat model to protect against third-party data breaches by handing over, even more, data to a third party? Doesn’t that create ostensibly the biggest online target in the world?
And looking at the problem from another angle: If the biggest players in the industry rely on agreements with credit bureaus to do at least a portion of their monitoring, why aren’t the bureaus doing this for all of us? Given that Transunion, Equifax, and Experian took it upon themselves to collect our financial data without consent, don’t they have a responsibility to protect it with industry standard best practices? As a reminder, Equifax was not breached by an arcane APT attack. They were breached by negligence.
Identity theft monitoring services sound great on the surface. They’re not that expensive and seem to provide peace of mind against an avalanche of ever-more damaging breaches. But they don’t, at present, protect against the worst impacts of identity theft—the theft itself. Instead, they duplicate free services and, worst of all, let the credit bureaus off the hook for improving their security.