NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Scared by all the doom-saying from security experts and the identity theft stories in the news? Well, don't lose sight of your common sense. Below are some of the services you could buy -- and the free alternatives.
What's on offer
ID INSURANCE It doesn't reimburse your stolen money, but it pays expenses such as lost wages (only up to $2,000 in some plans) and legal fees; many don't pay when it's theft by family members, a common form of ID fraud.
How much: $25 to $70 a year
Should you buy it? Only if your time is literally money. If you run a small business or bill by the hour, for example, coverage for lost wages may be helpful.
CREDIT MONITORING It scans your files at one of the three major credit reporting agencies and alerts you to changes. New addresses, inquiries or accounts in your name may be a red flag that an evil twin is out there.
How much: $24 to $60 a year
Should you buy it? Only if you're a victim of ID fraud or burglary, or you're a biz owner or real estate buyer who can't afford any halt on your credit after an ID fraud.
DELUXE MONITORING It may include daily checks of reports from all three agencies, some insurance, analysis of your credit scores, and even counseling and help restoring your good name.
How much: $100 to $155 a year or more
Should you buy it? Only if you need lots of guidance fixing a poor credit score in a hurry.
The free alternatives
Check your current home insurance policy. Some insurers throw in ID coverage automatically so you may not need separate ID insurance. Remember, one of the reasons these policies are so cheap is that you're unlikely to collect much anyway.
Instead of paying for monitoring, get the free annual credit report you're entitled to from each of the big three (go to annualcreditreport.com); by staggering your orders, you can see a report every four months. You also have the right to free fraud alerts.
Reduce your risk of being ripped off in the first place: Shred personal documents, get a locked mailbox, review your accounts regularly, and opt out of prescreened credit offers by calling 888-5-OPTOUT.
What to avoid
Buying protection you already have The most perplexing ID theft service we've seen so far is Chase Fraud Detector. For $8 a month, it'll alert you about hinky activity on your Chase credit card.
But wait: You're not liable for fraudulent Visa and MasterCard charges anyway. Why pay Chase to prevent Chase from getting ripped off? Well, you also get insurance and help after a theft. But $96 a year seems like a lot to pay for that.
Costly extras Pre-Paid Legal sells its Identity Theft Shield credit monitor through an Amway-like multilevel marketing network. Its salespeople also push a plan that provides legal services for a monthly fee, which Pre-Paid claims is essential for full protection.
But you won't need a lawyer for most ID theft issues. And there are limits on the legal help covered by the plan. Interestingly, half of Pre-Paid's members cancel within a year.
Freebies with fine print Web sites such as Freecreditreport.com offer a free 30-day trial but charge fat monthly fees if you don't cancel. Want a truly free report? Go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
Also free as can be: If you think you're a victim, you've the right to a 90-day fraud alert that warns any lender to contact you before granting credit in your name. Call any credit bureau to get it.
Your employer lost your data. Now what?
For more identity theft stories and information, click here.