What is Credit Monitoring?
Credit monitoring began as a simple concept: A company monitors your credit reports periodically and sends an alert when something changes. In recent years, companies have added new and exotic features to make these services seem more valuable.
Only you can decide if any or all of these features are worth the price they're asking. Just know that credit monitoring has many critics, including Knowzy at times.
In this article, we look in detail at each credit monitoring feature and discuss alternatives.
Our side-by-side comparison chart breaks down features and costs of every credit monitoring service offered by the three credit bureaus.
Learn what makes up a credit monitoring service and decide whether it's worth it or worthless in Knowzy's What is Credit Monitoring?
Alerts of Credit Report Changes
Service pulls your credit report(s) frequently and sends out an e-mail message and/or text alert when something changes.
What to Look For: Number of credit reports monitored (you have 3); How often credit reports are pulled (most are daily); May not be able to see credit report(s) – see Credit Reports section.
Alternatives: Monitor your own credit reports free once every 4 months. Buy your credit reports periodically throughout the year.
The defining feature of any credit monitoring service is the ability to quickly learn when something is added or removed from one of your credit reports. When the service detects a change, it sends you an e-mail alert or text message.
Alerts you might see are:
- Balance increase or decrease
- Credit inquiry (someone viewed your credit report, possibly to take out a loan)
- New collection account
- Late payment
- New or change of address
- Name change
- New public record, including
- Tax liens
- Judgments (someone successfully sued you)
- Credit card inactivity
How Many Credit Bureaus are Monitored?
You have three credit reports, one from each U.S. credit bureau: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your three reports are rarely identical.
Some services monitor all three of your credit reports, others only one.
You won't necessarily pay extra for three bureau credit monitoring. Just look carefully before signing up.
Is Free Credit Monitoring for You?
You can monitor your own credit free, albeit not nearly as frequently. See our guide, "Free, Do-It-Yourself Credit Monitoring" for instructions.
You can view each of your three credit reports free once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
This gives you three free credit reports per year or one every four months if you space them out evenly.
You're not monitoring every credit report every day. Indeed, you would only see each bureau's credit report once per year.
Is seeing one credit report every four months frequent enough for you?
Identity Theft Protection?
Seeing these near real-time changes to your credit reports could alert you to identity theft, companies pitching credit monitoring services will tell you.
While true, it will do nothing to prevent this fraud from taking place.
Another service called a credit freeze locks your credit report with a PIN code, stopping thieves from opening new accounts in your name in the first place.
Just because your credit monitoring service alerts you to changes on your credit report doesn't always mean you can see your credit report. Some services offer unlimited access to your credit reports others make charge you to see your reports. See the Credit Reports section for details.
Today, all credit monitoring services we monitor check your report daily. In the past, a few checked your report once a week.
Periodic access to your credit score(s) often with graphs of your score over time
What to Look For: How often can you update your credit score; Type of score; Credit report(s) from which your score is calculated.
Alternatives: Buy your credit score as needed; Apply for a loan to check your score free
While you can see your credit report free from time-to-time, you must pay to see your credit score in most cases. With FICO scores at $20 a-piece, a credit monitoring service may be economical if you'd like to track your score's progress over time.
There are three big considerations when evaluating the score offering of a credit monitoring service:
- What credit score model are you getting? (Hint: It's probably not a FICO score.)
- Which credit bureau's credit score are you getting? (Experian is the largest.)
- How often can you check your credit score? (You might only get a score upon signing up.)
FICO Scores are Hard to Come By
If the credit monitoring service offers a score at all, it generally is not a genuine FICO score. Instead, it offers a FICO-like score or a VantageScore.
The majority of lenders use FICO scores. Lenders also use VantageScore, though not widely. No lenders use Experian's PLUS, TransUnion's TransRisk nor the Equifax Credit Score- they are "for educational purposes only."
All credit scores use similar, though not identical formulas. If you have a good FICO score, you will also have a good PLUS score.
FICO's score range is 300 – 850. Fair Isaac Corporation, the "F" and "I" in FICO, claimed a trademark on the 300 – 850 range and credit score numerical ranges in general. That didn't work out in the end.
While this played out in the courts, two new credit scores were born with ranges similar to, but not exactly, FICO's 300 – 850:
VantageScore chose a range well above FICO's: 501 – 990. Fair Isaac sued them anyway (and lost).
Be careful- VantageScore's unfamiliar range might lead you to believe you are doing better than you really are: It's roughly 200 points higher than your FICO score.
TransUnion's TransRisk score uses FICO's range- 300 - 850. This score was created around 2006, before the courts decided against Fair Isaac- a bold move on TransUnion's part.
Experian FICO Scores are Even Harder to Come By
It is impossible for you to purchase your Experian FICO score as a consumer, even though lenders can readily access it. This is thanks to an ongoing dispute between the Fair Isaac Corporation (keeper of the FICO formula) and Experian.
While a car dealer or mortgage broker could get your FICO score free, it's not a viable way to keep track of it. You'll only monitor your score going down.
When a lender pulls your credit report, it hurts your credit score slightly by generating a "hard inquiry." Too many inquiries lower your credit score.
Consumers are the true casualties in this war between Experian and FICO. It means you cannot know your Experian FICO score without affecting your credit score.
Does Service Offer Unlimited Access to Credit Scores?
It costs next to nothing for Experian to calculate a PLUS score based on any of your three credit reports. Calculating a FICO score, however, requires making a small royalty payment to the Fair Isaac Corporation.
It's little wonder that the only credit monitoring service we track that offers FICO scores does so only twice a year. Offering unlimited FICO scores would cost too much.
All other credit monitoring services in our charts that offer non-FICO scores give you unlimited access to those scores.
Consider the Source
Since each of your three credit reports may contain different information, it's worth considering which credit report is used to calculate the credit score.
One service we track offers a score for all three credit bureaus (it's also the most expensive at $29.95 per month). The rest use the report of the bureau offering the credit monitoring service to calculate the credit score.
The market share of the three bureaus skews toward Experian.
According to market analysis from students at the College of Business at Illinois, the big three rank as follows among all credit rating agencies and bureaus:
- Experian: 25%
- Equifax: 16.9%
- TransUnion: 10.5%
View you credit report(s) any time you want, occassionally or not at all, depending on the service.
What to Look For: Do you have access to your credit report; How often; What bureaus' reports can you see?
Alternatives: Get 3 free credit reports per year from AnnualCreditReport.com; Buy your credit report as needed.
While all credit monitoring services alert you to changes in your credit report, some never let you see it.
Look at "when and who's" when considering the credit report access feature:
- When do you get to see your credit report? Some credit monitoring services don't let you see it at all. Others give you a credit report on sign up only. Others let you pull a report a few times per year. The best credit monitoring services let you pull your credit report as often as you'd like.
- Who's credit report do you get to see? Generally, you only get to see one bureau's credit report, even if the service monitors all three credit reports. A few will let you see all three reports. In this context, a "3-in-1 report" means a single report with data from all three bureaus- it lists items appearing on two or more credit reports just once.
Identity Theft Expense Insurance
Should you become identity theft's next victim, reimburses expenses related to clearing your name. It does not reimburse stolen funds.
What to Look For: Coverage limits; deductibles; illegal in New York State
Alternatives: Add coverage through your homeowner's insurance; Do without this type of insurance.
A $1 million identity theft insurance policy may sound nice. In reality, the policy covers so little that the largest claim you could possibly make might be in the tens of thousands.
With this policy, if identity theft strikes, the insurance company covers lost wages, postage and other expenses incurred recovering from identity theft. They may cover attorney's fees "with prior approval."
They will not cover actual monetary losses- just money you spend trying to recover your losses.
Consumer Reports found loopholes that could prevent the policy from paying at all.
You cannot buy a policy in New York State because they don't consider it a true insurance policy.
If you are interested in ID theft insurance, you might be able to get it much cheaper through your homeowner's insurance. Traveler's ID Theft Protection policy is $25 per year on top of your regular homeowner's insurance.
Automatically place a fraud alert on your 3 credit reports every 90 days.
What to Look For: Is it offered?
Alternatives: Place your own, personal fraud alert on your credit reports free anytime; Security freeze.
A credit alert is a personal statement to lenders reviewing your credit report. It usually asks lenders to contact a given phone number before opening a new line of credit.
This proof of identity can prevent criminals from opening fraudulent accounts in your name.
Equifax is the only company offering this service. Credit alerts were the core of LifeLock's service until Experian sued and forced LifeLock to end the practice.
Knowzy tried Equifax's Credit Watch Gold with 3-in-1 Monitoring* to see what a credit alert really looked like. Here's what showed up on this author's credit report:
ID SECURITY ALERT: FRAUDULENT APPLICATIONS MAY BE SUBMITTED IN MY NAME OR MY IDENTITY MAY HAVE BEEN USED WITHOUT MY CONSENT TO FRAUDULENTLY OBTAIN GOODS OR SERVICES. DO NOT EXTEND CREDIT WITHOUT FIRST VERIFYING THE IDENTITY OF THE APPLICANT. I CAN BE REACHED AT 408-555-1212. THIS SECURITY ALERT WILL BE MAINTAINED FOR 90 DAYS BEGINNING 06-04-11.
Equifax places this on all three credit reports for 90 days. Every time the security alert expires, Equifax issues the same alert again.
You can place your own credit alert on your credit reports by contacting the credit bureaus. The alerts last 90 days unless you have proof of identity theft or are active duty in the military.
Place your free credit alerts through these links:
Talk About Credit Monitoring
Did we answer all your questions about credit monitoring? If not, let us know on the feedback page. There you can also read what others had to say about credit monitoring services.
* Knowzy earns a commission on services marked with a *. Our policy is to show all competing services, even if we don't earn a commission from them.
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Originally Published: Thursday, August 10, 2006, 5:00 PM PT
Last Updated: Monday, October 10, 2011, 8:05 PM PT
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