Those add-on services that credit card companies sell -- everything from credit-monitoring services to identity theft protection -- have made headlines lately, and not good ones. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has levied large fines against some of the biggest financial institutions in the country, accusing them of tricking customers into paying for add-on services that offer little benefit.
Should you sign up for the credit-monitoring, fraud-protection or identity theft prevention services offered by your credit card provider? This is, not surprisingly, a complicated question.
Financial professionals say that many of these services aren't worth the price. But that doesn't mean that consumers should automatically refuse such add-ons, financial pros say. Some services can keep consumers, especially those too busy to check their credit reports or credit card statements on their own, from falling victim to fraud or identity theft.
The key is for consumers to carefully review add-ons being offered to them before making a decision.
"The problem with these programs is that there are so many caveats," says Beverly Harzog, an Atlanta-based credit card expert and author of the book "Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid the Mistakes I Made." "When customers needed the protection or service they thought they were buying, the programs didn't pay out. There were too many loopholes or gotchas in the fine print."
Credit card companies make extra money by selling add-on services to customers. They might offer credit-monitoring services that alert customers when changes are made to their credit reports. Identity theft protection services might send you alerts when someone opens new credit card accounts in your name.
But while these services are moneymakers for credit card companies, it's not always clear if they offer real protection to consumers. The CFPB in April ordered Bank of America and FIA Card Services to pay an estimated $727 million to customers after the bureau found that the bank made false marketing statements as a way to convince customers to sign up for two add-on services, Credit Protection Plus and Credit Protection Deluxe.
The CFPB said that Bank of America told some customers that the first 30 days of this coverage was free, which wasn't true. The CFPB said that the bank also misled customers about how long their coverage would last.
The CFPB charged Bank of America, too, with illegally signing up about 1.9 million consumer accounts for credit-monitoring and credit-reporting services that they were not actually receiving.
The bureau has also fined American Express, Discover, Capital One and JPMorgan Chase for similar add-on deceptions.
The fines levied against credit card companies, though, don't mean that all add-on services are scams. Some might actually benefit you.
Credit-monitoring services might be unnecessary for many consumers, but important for others, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
You can monitor your credit on your own, for free, by ordering copies of your credit reports each year from AnnualCreditReport.com. You're entitled to one free report each from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion each year from this website. This means that you can order a credit report every four months -- by rotating through the three credit bureaus -- to search for suspicious account openings or other signs of fraud.
You can also study your credit card statements closely each month -- or more frequently if you do this online -- to make sure that no one has made any charges without your permission, Cunningham says.
Many consumers, though, forget to check their credit reports or credit card statements. For these consumers, a credit-monitoring service might make sense, Cunningham says.
Les Szarka, chief executive officer of North Olmsted, Ohio-based Szarka Financial, says that some add-on services are more important than others. He lists identity theft protection as a must-have, especially when it's offered by a big-name company such as Visa or Discover.
"I think that the fraud out there that we are hearing about today is just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "It is a huge problem. Anything that you can do to protect yourself is well worth it."
Consumers do have to protect themselves, though. Cunningham recommends that consumers never sign up for an add-on service over the phone. Instead, they should request that credit card companies send them documentation in the mail.
"By reviewing actual documents, you can make sure that you understand what you are paying for," Cunningham says.
This is important. Many of these add-on services seem inexpensive. But even services that are $20 a month can add up to a big price tag over time, Cunningham says.
"Small money times 12 turns into real money," she says.
This article originally appeared on WisePiggy.com
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