Credit monitoring services can't prevent identity theft

Dollars & Sense

November 09, 2003|By Liz Pulliam Weston | Liz Pulliam Weston,SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

With the rise in identity theft, my family is extremely concerned about our financial security.

I'm sure there isn't any magic bullet that can keep thieves from stealing our information if they really want to, but I'm curious about the credit monitoring services you see advertised. They appear to help keep tabs on any unusual activity and alert you to suspicious uses of your credit information.

Are these useful and worth the yearly fee? I know we can always request our credit reports, but we'd like something more proactive.

Credit monitoring isn't all it's cracked up to be.

First and most important, these services can't prevent identity theft. The best they can do is give you an early warning that someone has opened a credit account in your name.

Sometimes, you're not even guaranteed that. Some of the services wait a month before notifying you of any changes, although the best notify you (typically by e-mail) within 24 hours.

Also, most services monitor your credit report from just one of the three bureaus. That means your service won't detect problems that crop up on your reports at the two other bureaus. This is no small issue - the three bureaus don't share information, and the data they collect on you often are different.

Finally, these services are expensive, ranging from about $44 to $120 a year. To get continuous monitoring at all three bureaus, you'd need to pay about $200 a year to various services. For that price, you could order credit reports from each of the bureaus seven or eight times a year.

If you've been the victim of identity theft, that might be a small price to pay for peace of mind. Early detection can help you contain the damage, allowing you to contact creditors and get bogus accounts closed.

But most people are probably fine just ordering their reports a few times a year. Jay Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends ordering a different report every few months so that you see all three reports more than once a year.

Start by ordering your report from Equifax (www.equifax.com), for example, then three to four months later contact Experian (www.experian.com), and then three or four months after that get your report from TransUnion (www.transunion.com). A few months later, start the process all over again.

My daughter is divorced and has custody of our granddaughter; both live with us.

If anything were to happen to my daughter, would custody of my granddaughter automatically go to her father? Or could my daughter make out a will specifying that the girl stay with us instead?

Your daughter can make out a will saying anything she likes, but if her ex-husband wants your granddaughter and is the child's biological parent, a judge most likely will award custody to him rather than you.

There are exceptions. You could win your case for custody if your former son-in-law obviously is an unfit parent. Typically, you would need to prove mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism or a history of his physically or sexually abusing your granddaughter. If the father abandoned the child and doesn't visit, that also could count against him.

Otherwise, judges typically favor biological parents over other applicants for custody in such circumstances.

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