Should You Pay for Cellphone ID Protection?

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From stored passwords and emails to two-factor authentication, your phone holds the key to a massive amount of your personal information. Unfortunately, that means cellphones are often the target of identity thieves looking to use that information to do things like open new accounts in your name and access existing ones. So, do you need to pay for protection against fraud, or are you able to handle your own security needs for free?

What Is Cellphone ID Protection?

With concerns about identity theft on the rise, you might be eyeing your cellphone service carrier's identity protection offers, which can be bundled with your phone bill for about the same price as a monthly streaming subscription or two. Cellphone ID protection can provide a number of safeguards for your personal information and is available through a number of cell service providers. Services from major carriers include: Verizon's Digital Secure, AT&T's IDnotify and Protection <360> through T-Mobile. Protection plans vary in the specific services they offer, but they generally aim to protect your data in three main ways:

  • Alerts: A cellphone ID protection service can alert you if it detects that your personal information—including your Social Security number, bank account info or credit card numbers—is being shared online. A cellphone carrier-provided plan may even sound the alarm with an app notification if it detects an unsafe website, or sees that you're trying to connect to an unprotected Wi-Fi network.
  • Monitoring: ID security programs may continuously monitor your credit reports and other wells of personal information for changes like new accounts in your name. If something noteworthy is found, you'll receive a notification to look into any changes before they can escalate.
  • Support and insurance: On the chance that your identity or personal information does get stolen, ID protection plans usually have some legal and monetary coverage that could help you recover from fraud.

Cell providers have been increasingly in the spotlight for their ID theft vulnerability. The most common cellphone ID fraud happens when thieves gather personal data to obtain new phone lines in your name (called "porting") or transfer your existing phone line to a SIM card they control (known as "SIM swapping").

Once thieves have hijacked your cell service, they can receive two-factor authentication codes and calls to "confirm" their identity as you. From there, they can gain entry to your accounts, including your finances, and spend at will—meanwhile, you're left wondering why your cellphone service suddenly stopped working. They may also attempt to collect your information through social media and with phishing attacks, in which you're lured into entering login or account information on a phony website.

Is Cellphone ID Protection Worth It?

With all these risks to consider, when is it worthwhile to pay for ID protection through your cellphone company? Let's take a look at the pros and cons you can expect if you go through your carrier for identity protection.

Pros and Cons of Cellphone ID Protection
Fraud recovery services can act as an insurance policy for your money. They may promise to minimize damage in the aftermath of identity theft, whether that means helping to salvage your credit score or refilling an emptied bank account (of course, restrictions always apply).As with any insurance policy or legal agreement, the fine print matters. Read over the specific contract details, so you know exactly what you're covered for if your information is stolen; you may get relatively limited power of attorney in the deal, or only receive coverage for a fraction of your savings.
Cellphone service providers offer carrier-specific plans, but you'll usually see them attached to another company or credit bureau. This can lead to a better deal through your provider or a different set of perks that might work better for you than other offers.Buying ID protection through your carrier can be somewhat limiting, as they only team up with one third-party cybersecurity company. It depends what you're looking for in an offer, but you may find something more suited to your needs by purchasing security from outside of your service network—there are a lot out there to choose from, like added security and plans that cover whole families.
Many plans, like Verizon's Digital Secure, include a useful feature for dark web monitoring to detect stolen information being sold and traded in the depths of the internet. Some tools offered by cellphone ID protection services are available for free elsewhere. For instance, you can see if your personal details are floating around the corners of the dark web with Experian's Dark Web Triple Scan. You can find out if, when and which of your records might be compromised, even without signing up for a subscription.
Cellphone ID protection can alert you of activity quickly, which gives you a head start on taking preventive measures before your accounts are infiltrated. If a fraudster captures enough of your identity to start wreaking havoc, your credit could get seriously wounded.If you're already checking your own credit regularly, you're capable of catching this kind of activity on your own—and you can even do so passively and without paying a dime, like when you use Experian's free credit monitoring to receive important alerts of new accounts added in your name. If you worry your information has been compromised, you can always sign up for your own (temporary) fraud alerts, also free of charge, through Experian or another credit bureau.
Since you're paying to have much of your online safety looked after, you can essentially buy a little peace of mind with your plan.You're still handing over your secure information when you sign up for ID protection, and your cellphone carrier isn't immune to hacks. A serious breach can jeopardize user data—including yours.

How to Protect Yourself From Cellphone ID Fraud

There are plenty of ways to safeguard your own identity from cellphone fraudsters, especially if you're not particularly at risk (you may be at risk if you know your personal information has been compromised before, or if a free dark web scan shows any of your information currently in jeopardy).

Consider a Fraud Alert or Credit Freeze

If you worry your personal information has been compromised, you can request what's called a fraud alert through the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax), free of charge. When a fraud alert is in place, potential new creditors are asked to verify your identity before viewing your credit information and opening a new account. To activate a fraud alert, call or go online with just one of the three credit bureaus; once you notify one, they'll communicate your request to the other companies.

There are three types of fraud alert available:

  • Temporary fraud alert: These last one year and can be added to a credit report for any reason.
  • Active-duty fraud alert: This type of alert is available to members of the military serving far from home. They last one year.
  • Extended fraud victim alert: If you've already fallen victim to identity theft, an extended alert is available. These last seven years, and require you to submit extra paperwork.

In most cases, a fraud alert is enough to protect your credit file. In extreme cases where you're dealing with repeated ID theft attempts, however, freezing your credit is an option. While a credit freeze is in place, access to your credit file is limited. It's an effective (and free) protection that you can unfreeze, or "thaw," with a PIN whenever you're ready. Since creditors won't be able to pull your records, identity thieves can't open new lines of credit and spend on them in your name. To get started, contact each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to request a freeze.

You may also choose to go an extra step for cellphone ID protection: Call your service provider and ask what kinds of "port freeze" options they have. These are cellphone-specific account locks to stop criminals from accessing your identity through your carrier. You can also freeze your credit records with the National Consumer Telecommunications and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE). The NCTUE manages certain consumer data like payment history and account information that doesn't tend to show up on credit reports, including utility bills, TV services and telecommunication accounts—including your account with your cellphone carrier. Placing a temporary fraud alert or freezing your file with the NCTUE can halt attempts to access vulnerable data stored there or open new utility accounts in your name (including cellphone services).

Use Your Carrier's Free Security Features

You can set up a PIN directly with your carrier to avert some standard methods of cellphone ID fraud, including porting fraud attempts. Each provider has different safety measures, but in general, you'll be able to set up a code or password required to make any changes to your account. Different from the password you'd use to sign in online, this PIN code with your carrier is a simple way to confirm your identity with customer service representatives and thwart fraudsters before they can access your account. Some carriers allow you to set it up online (for instance, if you use Verizon, you can go to the My Verizon security page), while others allow you to set your PIN over the phone or by stopping by in-store.

Keep and Eye on What You Post

Criminals who deal in information know how to sift through your social media and other publicly available information about you and piece together enough to steal your identity. Be aware of any and all details you share online, including photos, that could reveal your address or other sensitive specifics.

Watch Out for Viruses and Theft

Your phone is like a compact computer, and it can be just as susceptible to malware as a desktop. Be cautious with text-messaged links and consider installing antivirus software on your phone, especially if you're an Android user.

Also, remember that there's a lot stored in the phone itself. If your phone is lost or stolen, someone may be able to unlock it and access your accounts that way. Be sure to use a secure PIN to lock your phone or, if possible, set up biometric security features. For added security, the Android and iPhone operating systems allow users to encrypt the data on their cellphone, so even if someone gets their hands on the phone, the data inside will be locked away behind encryption.

Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Think of VPNs as ways to lock up your internet activity. They encrypt everything you do online, so you can relax a bit more on public Wi-Fi and at home, knowing no one is virtually looking over your shoulder while you enter a credit card number or password. VPNs usually don't cost much and may even be included in an identity protection plan; however, if you don't want to pay for either, you may want to look for third-party VPN services that won't sell your consumer data.

The Bottom Line

With a bit of attention, you can successfully keep yourself safe (and save yourself some money) by handling your own cellphone ID protection. Securing your identity will take some time and effort, but this will be well worth it if it prevents your personal information from falling into the wrong hands.

However, you know yourself best, and you may decide it's worth it to pay for a plan. If you don't make a habit of manually checking up on your credit and financial accounts, cellphone ID protection and similar services (such as Experian Credit Monitoring), can be a huge help.