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Is credit monitoring a salve for data breaches?

Kelly Dilworth

If you recently shopped at Target or Neiman Marcus, you’re eligible for a year of free credit monitoring — no strings attached — courtesy of the two beleaguered retailers whose payment systems were hacked late last year. Target shoppers were targeted between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. Neiman Marcus shoppers’ credit and debit card details were scraped sometime between July 16 and Oct. 30.

In an effort to restore customers’ trust after the massive security breach, both Target and Neiman Marcus are offering the free year to all recent shoppers, regardless of whether they were affected by the attacks.

Is credit monitoring a salve for data breach?

In a mass email sent to Target shoppers early last week, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized again for the security breach — which exposed an estimated 40 million shoppers’ card information and 70 million other customer details — and offered shoppers a year-long subscription to Experian’s ProtectMyID service.

Steinhafel’s email spurred a flurry of news headlines, thanks in part to shoppers’ worry the email was a scam in and of itself. (Apparently, phishers have already caught on to the opportunity and are indeed sending fake emails purporting to be from Target and asking for customers’ personal information, according to multiple reports.)

Neiman Marcus also emailed customers about the year-long service, but unlike Target, it asks shoppers to go directly to the Neiman Marcus website for more information, rather than click on an embedded link. (If you do receive an email from Neiman Marcus offering free credit monitoring and includes a link, don’t click on it, said the company. An embedded link should be your first clue the email is a scam.)

Spotlight on credit monitoring
The retailers’ decision to pay for a year of free credit monitoring — a $191 value — has thrown a bright spotlight on a service that typically gets mixed reviews from consumer advocates.

Credit bureaus, including Experian, have been pushing credit monitoring for years, arguing the service helps protect customers from identity theft by issuing warnings to consumers when suspicious activity has occurred.

Detractors, however, say the costly service — which runs between $12.95 and $17.95 per month if you order it from one of the big three credit bureaus — is a waste of money, since all it does is alert you to a potential breach, rather than avert it.

You can already monitor your credit for free by regularly checking your bank and credit card statements online and by ordering a free annual copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com.

A number of consumer advocates have also noted that credit monitoring may not even be that useful for victims of this most recent data breach because credit monitoring typically only works for people whose personal information is used to open a new account. As Consumer Union’s Minerva Novoa noted in a recent blog post about the scheme: “In most cases, it takes a Social Security number to open a new consumer credit account, and as of now there is no evidence that the Target or Neiman Marcus hackers captured that information.”

What credit monitoring can be useful for, however, is helping you quickly resolve a case of identity theft if you do become a victim — particularly since some credit monitoring services, such as Experian’s ProtectMyID also include insurance coverage, which can help subsidize any expenses you rack up trying to fix the problem.

So it may be worth taking Target or Neiman Marcus up on the free offer if, as Target’s public relations team notes, you’d like a little more “peace of mind.”

How to take advantage of the offer
If a free service that includes an extra credit report sounds like a good deal to you, here’s what you need to do.

  • Target is offering free credit monitoring to all Target shoppers, regardless of whether they were directly affected by the data breach. You can get an activation code by entering your name and email at creditmonitoring.target.com. After you receive your activation code by email, visit protectmyid.com/target and redeem your code. You have until April 23, 2014, to request an activation code and until April 30 to sign up for the service.
  • Neiman Marcus is also offering the service to any shopper who is willing to certify that he or she shopped at Neiman Marcus within the last year and used a payment card to make a purchase. To redeem Neiman Marcus’ offer, visit protectmyid.com/nm. You have until June 15, 2014, to sign up.

If you have any trouble activating your free credit monitoring service, contact Experian’s ProtectMyID customer service group at 866-579-2216.

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