Identity fraud has reached epidemic proportions, the fraud prevention service Cifas warned last year, with a record 89,000 identity frauds recorded in the first six months of 2017.
There are a wide range of scams around, but at heart they all involve a criminal pretending to be someone else in order to steal money, take out loans, buy goods or do something equally dubious in their victim's name.
Couldn't happen to you? Don't be quite so confident. You may not realize there's a problem until you apply for a mortgage or loan and find there's an issue with your credit report. This could take quite some time, with credit reporting agency Experian claiming that it can take an average of 292 days for people to figure out that their information has been used in a fraud.
Identity theft protection services offer tools to help you spot potential signs of trouble, and maybe prevent the theft happening in the first place.
All plans offer access to your credit report, allowing you to view loans, credit cards and other financial accounts linked to your name. Options range from free plans which give you limited access to a report from a single agency, to paid services which monitor all your details across multiple credit report providers, alerting you if they spot any changes.
Some services monitor websites commonly used by criminals to sell data, looking out for any sign of your personal information.
A few providers might give you some form of security software, perhaps blocking some of the holes that could allow your data to be stolen.
No service can offer a 100% protection guarantee, but if you are hit by fraud, the best companies will still help. Support teams can step in to make phone calls, fill in paperwork, get legal representation and more, and in some cases there's even an insurance element to reimburse you for expenses and lost funds.
The best protection isn't cheap – you could pay $30 (£20) a month – but don't let that put you off. Some companies offer basic tools for free, and there are plenty of low cost, high value plans for UK and US citizens to choose from.
All the big-name ID theft protection services will offer you some degree of access to your credit report, but usually this comes from a single provider. That could be a problem, as there are several credit reporting agencies around, each with their own slightly different version of your credit history.
UK-based Checkmyfile helps out by accessing your credit reports from Experian, Equifax, Callcredit and Crediva, combining their details in a single report.
Having instant visibility of data from four agencies means it’s far less likely that you'll miss any attempted fraudulent use of your personal details. It may help you solve strange credit issues, too, as you'll be able to see if any of the records have any errors which might cause problems with banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions.
Checkmyfile's disadvantage is that it doesn't offer any form of automated monitoring. It won't warn you if there's a significant change to your report, and there's no ability to watch the dark web for your personal details: if a problem appears, you're going to have to spot it yourself.
Despite this, there's a lot to like about Checkmyfile. The reports are excellent, with great use of graphics and charts, and the service even allows you to download local copies as password-protected PDFs. If you're mainly interested in credit report access, it's worth taking the 30-day trial.
In a world where the competition regularly charges eye-wateringly high subscription fees, Noddle's appeal is easy to spot: no-strings free access to your credit report, for life.
The free service does have a significant caveat. When you first log in, Noddle displays your current credit report, but after that it's only updated every 30 days. If you're unlucky on the timing, you could have an identity thief take out a loan in your name, and not know about it for as long as four weeks.
The commercial Noddle Alerts plan steps up its protection by alerting you within 24 hours concerning any significant changes to your credit report. It's priced at only £20 a year in the UK, which is excellent value when other services can charge around £15 a month for little more.
A separate Noddle Web Watch plan monitors the dark web for any sign of your personal details being sold online, which might give you an early warning of identity theft attempts. It's also priced at a very reasonable £20 as a standalone plan, or you can buy both Noddle Alerts and Noddle Web Watch for £30 a year.
Noddle's services have their issues. The website has more ads and marketing tie-ins than usual, and although the reports are informative, they're not quite as well-designed as some of the big-name competition. But it does deliver a strong set of features for a very, very low price, and if you're looking for a bargain, Noddle offers one of the best identity theft protection deals around.
Founded in 2005, LifeLock is a US-based identity theft protection company which was recently purchased by Symantec for $2.3 billion (£1.6 billion).
The service provides in-depth monitoring of credit and loan applications, court and criminal records, change of address requests and any data exposed on more than 10,000 websites, looking out for any signs of others using your details.
If a potential issue crops up, smartly designed mobile apps give you near real-time alerts of what's going on. Should someone apply for an auto loan in your name, for instance, you don't just get to hear about it a few days later when your credit report updates: instead, the app sends you an immediate notification asking if this application was yours. Say no and LifeLock's support team jumps into action to investigate.
If a thief manages to bypass your defenses anyway, LifeLock's ID recovery specialists will help you get your life back. Unlike some services, that doesn't mean they'll advise you who to call – they'll do the heavy lifting for you, making those calls, filling in forms and more. In really serious situations, you're covered by up to $1 million for losses and expenses due to identity fraud.
Unsurprisingly, all this power doesn't come cheap. LifeLock's high-end Ultimate Plus account costs $29.99 a month, 50% more than similar products from IdentityForce and ID Watchdog.
It's hard to beat LifeLock's features and functionality, though, and the service does offer good deals in some areas. The starter LifeLock Standard plan gives you social security number and credit alerts for $9.99 a month, and you can protect up to five devices with Norton Security Online for free in year one, and only $3 a month after that. Not only is that impressive value, but securing your devices could prevent the leaks that allow ID theft to happen in the first place.
One of the biggest names in consumer credit reporting, Experian now maintains information on more than a billion businesses and individuals worldwide.
The company's CreditExpert plan is a capable service for those in the UK, offering access to their credit report and score, raising alerts when there are any significant changes, and keeping a careful eye on the dark web for any signs of the user’s personal data.
You don't have to be a financial geek to understand what's on offer, as Experian has gone to unusual lengths to make everything accessible and clear. While just about everyone claims they can show you your credit report, for instance, the Experian site offers a sample report to show you exactly what you'll get.
If you do sign up, you'll discover a straightforward web console that presents your details in as simple a way as possible, although experts can drill down to payment histories and other details in a few clicks.
CreditExpert doesn't offer any particularly surprising features, and its price is much the same as the other big names at £14.99 a month. Its ease of use is a major plus, though, and a 30-day trial provides a risk-free way to check out CreditExpert's abilities.
IdentityForce Inc. is a Massachusetts-based corporation which provides identity theft services for individuals, businesses and government agencies.
Protection starts with access to credit reports from the top three agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Web access, iOS and Android apps enable checking your details at any time.
A comprehensive monitoring network offers near real-time alerts for issues including searches on your credit report, changes of address, accounts being opened in your name, fraudulent use of your social security number, your details appearing in court records or on the sex offender register, and your data being sold on the dark web. If a problem is found you'll be speedily alerted via SMS and email.
There are some interesting bonus features. PC-based anti-phishing and anti-keylogger software tries to keep malware at bay and prevent hackers stealing your data, while a Social Media Identity Monitoring suite scans your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Google+ streams for malicious links, hacked and imposter accounts, and more.
No service can offer a 100% protection guarantee, but if you do become an identity theft victim, IdentityForce has a capable identity restoration team to get your life back in order, and an insurance policy will refund you up to $1 million for ID theft-related losses and expenses.