Identity theft continues to be one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. It is important for consumers to recognize that identity theft is not just a financial crime.This crime varies widely, and can include financial identity theft (checking and/or credit card fraud), criminal identity theft, governmental identity theft, andmedical identity theft.
Identity theft is a crime in which an impostor obtains key pieces of personal identifying information (PII) such as Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers and uses them for their own personal gain. It can start with lost or stolen wallets, stolen mail, a data breach, computer virus, “phishing” scams, or paper documents thrown out by you or a business (dumpster diving).
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A new report on identity-theft protection services says the most frequent complaint from customers concerns misleading trial offers.
Customers sometimes didn’t understand that they would have to pay once the trials ended, the report found, or had trouble reaching the companies to cancel the service.
The Consumer Federation of America, working with commercial providers of identity theft services, last year proposed voluntary “best practices” for the firms to follow in marketing their products. These companies offer a range of services, from credit report monitoring to correcting actual damage caused by an incident of identity theft.
The best practices state, in part, that companies shouldn’t misrepresent their ability to protect consumers from identity theft; that they should have clear, easily accessible privacy policies; and that they clearly explain how the service’s features may help consumers.
The federation recently completed a review of about 20 providers’ Web sites to see how firms were doing in meeting the guidelines a year later. It found that most of the services’ Web sites did a “fair job” of complying with the guidelines, but there is still “need for improvement,” said Susan Grant, director of the federation’s consumer protection division and leader of the project, in a news release.
The full report looks at the sites and ranks their compliance with each of the voluntary guidelines. The researchers didn’t actually test the services; rather, they tried to gauge how well the companies were doing in providing straightforward information to prospective customers.
If the federation decided the company met the standard, it awarded a “thumbs up” symbol; if it needed some work, it got a hammer; and if it didn’t meet the standard, it got a “thumbs down.”
The report found that some of the sites’ marketing hype remains over the top, and may promise more than the company can deliver. “While these services may alert consumers about possible identity theft quicker than they would discover it themselves,” the report said, “they can’t prevent consumers’ personal information from being stolen or detect identity theft in all circumstances.”
But the most common complaint found during an online search had to with “free trial” offers, an area that wasn’t directly addressed in the original guidelines.
When the federation’s researchers searched online for complaints, looking at sites like ripoffreport.com, it didn’t find much concern about the quality of the identity theft services. (That isn’t surprising, the report said, since “the real test of these services is how well their alert systems and fraud assistance work when consumers become identity theft victims, and many will never experience that situation.”)
Rather, they found complaints about trial offers, in which companies offer their services free for a week or a month, after which customers are charged a fee. Customers often didn’t understand that they had to cancel the service to avoid being charged a fee. And some said they did try to cancel but couldn’t reach a company representative to do so. Still others said they never agreed to try the service in the first place.
The federation recommends that identity theft service providers give customers 48 hours’ notice that a free trial is ending, along with information about how to cancel if they wish and what the terms of the contract will be going forward, if they want to continue using it. And, the federation added, services should provide a quick, easy means of cancellation — “no endless busy signals, no multiple hoops to jump through.”
Have you encountered problems when trying to cancel an identity-theft protection service?