Identity theft protection service subscribers: Beware trial offers, as well as refund and cancellation policies, and always seek specifics about the exact type of assistance that will be provided.
Those warnings come from a new report into identity theft services. Released by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which counts 280 national, state, and local consumer rights groups as members, the 48-page study analyzes the practices of 20 identity theft services (which were not named in the report), as well as complaints made on the Internet about such services. It also details a series of best practices with which the CFA believes all identity theft service providers should comply.
"We found that most of the services' websites did a fair job of complying with the best practices, but there is need for improvement," said Susan Grant, CFA's director of consumer protection, in a statement.
[ Privacy groups are attacking the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Is CISPA Worth Saving? ]
One problem is marketing hype, as various services promise to "stop fraud before it starts" (Identity Hawk), "stop identity theft in its tracks" (Experian), or even to "prevent identity theft" (TransUnion). Compare that language with the Federal Trade Commission's guide to avoiding identity theft, which talks about how consumers can "deter, detect, defend, [and] avoid" ID theft.
Any identity theft service provider's promise to do more than that is hollow. "They can't prevent consumers' personal information from being stolen or detect identity theft in all instances ... [and] it's not always possible to stop identity theft, especially if someone's social security number has been compromised," according to the CFA's report.
Free trials are another offering that have seen their fair share of consumer complaints. "While many identity theft services are offered for free for a limited trial period, from the complaints that CFA found online it appears that the terms aren't always made clear," according to the report.
Plus, some identity theft service providers force consumers to jump through multiple hoops to cancel their trials. "Sometimes consumers can't get through to the company to cancel," according to the report. "Some consumers are charged even though they never agreed to try the service--usually because they gave their financial account information to that company or a partner of that company for something else."
Finally, not all identity theft service providers make clear exactly which services and features they're offering to provide. In many cases, researchers had to hunt through terms of service, FAQs, "and other less obvious places" to create a clear picture of what the service offered. "Some identity theft services act on behalf of customers if they become victims to resolve their problems, but most only provide advice and counseling," according to the report. In addition, the terminology related to services offered can be slippery. "For instance, if a credit score is provided, some services don't explain that it is an educational score, which is not the same score that lenders use," according to the report.
The CFA report findings may draw "truth in advertising" scrutiny from the FTC, as many services claim to be "#1" or "top-ranked," but provide no reference to back up that claim. Likewise, many of the identity theft statistics used by companies marketing ID theft services are outdated or inaccurate.
How could deficient identity theft service providers improve? For starters, the CFA has called on all such companies to cease sharing people's financial details with their affiliates, give consumers a warning when their free trials are ending, and detail the cost--should they continue after the free trial ends--as well as how they can easily and quickly cancel the service.
Put an end to insider theft and accidental data disclosure with network and host controls--and don't forget to keep employees on their toes. Also in the new, all-digital Stop Data Leaks issue of Dark Reading: Why security must be everyone's concern, and lessons learned from the Global Payments breach. (Free registration required.)