If it seems as if there's a new data breach or hacker attack reported on the nightly news each week, it's because these attacks are becoming far more prevalent.
Is anyone safe?
During the holiday season in 2013, Target became the first large company to publicly announce that millions of personal credit and debit cards over a multi-week period could be compromised. The end result was Target admitting that up to 70 million credit and debit cards could have been affected.
But Target was far from the last company to be the focus of cyber criminals and identity thieves. In no particular order, eBay, Yahoo!, Michael's, Home Depot, AT&T, JPMorgan Chase, UPS, Anthem, and Google are all publicly traded (some giant) companies that were hit with data breaches in 2014.
And it doesn't stop there. Last month, the Internal Revenue Service announced a back-door breach through its historical tax records app known as "Get Transcript" that allowed nearly 15,000 hackers to defraud the IRS of approximately $50 million. Overall, hackers attempted to access around 200,000 individual accounts.
Last week, however, we heard of potentially the scariest data breach yet. U.S. Government officials announced that for the second time in a year, the Office of Personnel Management was hacked into, with hackers taking information and records for up to 4 million current and former employees. The concern here is that these hackers could phish for data with these current and former employees via email and garner top-secret or desired information when the user opens a virus-laden email.
These are scary times in cyber-security, and it makes you question who really offers the best identity theft protection. Thankfully, Consumers Advocate recently answered this question by ranking the 10 best identity theft protection services.
Who really offers the best identity theft protection?
Despite LifeLock (NYSE:LOCK) easily being the most recognizable name in Consumers Advocate's rankings, it was only good enough to rank third of 10.
As Consumers Advocate describes, LifeLock service provides a good deal of personal information protection, as well as helps resolve problems when they occur. It notes that creating an account takes just a few minutes, and reviews from customers "have been overwhelmingly positive."
LifeLock prices its plans in two primary tiers: LifeLock Ultimate, which is $25 per month or $275 per year, and its namesake LifeLock plan which is $10/month or $110 for the year. The one knock against LifeLock, and what earned it eight out of 10 stars in Consumers Advocate's rankings, was that its basic LifeLock plan lacked some of the protections found in the basic plans of the two services ranked above it.
The top-ranked services according to Consumers Advocate were Identity Force in second place, with a score of nine out of 10 stars, and Identity Guard in first, with a perfect 10-star rating as well as the recommendation of being the editor's choice.
Identity Guard is a subsidiary of American International Group (NYSE:AIG), better known as AIG, and like LifeLock, it was given high marks by customers in various reviews. Where Identity Guard really separates itself in this side-by-side comparison among its peers is its service after an identity breach has occurred, purportedly helping to shorten the process a customer must go through to reclaim his identity, and providing these consumers with various educational tools and credit specialists to ensure their life gets back on track.
Are identity theft protection services worth the cost?
Still, consumers have to ask themselves whether it's worth ponying up the cash for an identity theft protection service. According to Kiplinger, these services may not be necessary since you can take the initiative and track many of the avenues that monitoring services do for you, for free!
For example, credit monitoring and free monthly credit scores are available to you at no cost as long as you're proactive enough to request them. You can access a report for free once per year from each of the three major credit agencies at www.annualcreditreport.com. Additionally, placing a fraud alert on your account entitles you to a free credit report every 90 days from each of the three major bureaus.
Furthermore, consumers often let fear grip them while failing to realize that most credit lenders and banks protect a consumer against unauthorized charges. According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than half of all identity theft victims incur no out-of-pocket expenses tied to the identity theft. This means claims of up to $1 million protection by identity theft protection services tend to be more for show than actual need.
You should also realize that even the best identity theft protection service can't protect you 100% from becoming an identity theft victim. If you're buying one of these services for lockdown protection, you could be sorely mistaken.
The best identity theft protection starts with you!
In my personal opinion, the best identity theft protection possible starts with being proactive about safeguarding your information and monitoring your critical accounts.
As noted above, monitoring your credit reports is one of many steps you should be taking to ensure your identity doesn't get stolen.
Something else worth taking to heart is logging into personal accounts on a Wi-Fi network in a public place such as an airport or coffee shop. Even though Wi-Fi networks have safeguards, they are much easier for hackers to infiltrate and steal protected data, such as bank account information. Save the important account access for the comforts of your own home, where your personal modem and server can offer you the best possible protection.
Even when you're in your home, it's best to ensure that your antivirus software and protective passwords are up to snuff. Antivirus software can alert you if you've clicked on a suspicious link or website that may not be protected. Similarly, a difficult password with a mixture of numbers, letters, capital letters, and special characters can make it difficult to for hackers to obtain access to your personal information. It's also a good idea to have different passwords across all websites as opposed to just one or two of the same password used over and over again.
Lastly, understand that social media is a great tool to connect with friends, but it's also the greatest gift since sliced bread for identity thieves. For those of you who post your daily events on Facebook or Twitter, you could be giving thieves the perfect ammo to defraud you. Be careful what you say on social media, and ensure you have the proper security parameters set up so only those people who you want to see your pictures and posts can do so.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool recommends Anthem, eBay, Facebook, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), Home Depot, LifeLock, Twitter, United Parcel Service, and Yahoo!. The Motley Fool owns shares of American International Group, eBay, Facebook, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), JPMorgan Chase, Twitter, and Yahoo!. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.