In the wake of a massive data breach that affected up to 100 million shoppers over the holidays, Target Corp has offered all of its customers - whether or not they were directly affected - a year of free credit monitoring. Is it an offer you should take?
Here are some questions and answers about what this sort of protection does - and does not - do and what you should keep in mind if you do sign up.
Q: What is Target offering?
A: One year of free credit monitoring from the credit bureau Experian if you request an authorization code from Target and activate it by April 30.
Q: What does that give me?
A: In addition to getting a copy of a credit report from Experian, consumers will be notified when there are changes to their credit history. Such changes include applications for credit and any new accounts that are added.
Every consumer is entitled to a free copy of their credit report once a year from each of the three major credit bureaus - Experian, Equifax and Transunion. The official website to get that free report is AnnualCreditReport.com. Some experts recommend getting one every four months so you have a greater opportunity to see any unwelcome activity sooner.
If a consumer is a victim of identity theft they will also be provided with assistance from Experian to help resolve the tangle that typically follows. It can take a lot of effort and time to distance yourself from the fraud and clean up your credit history.
The free service offered by Target does not provide a credit score, however. That is available for an additional fee.
Q: What happens after one year?
A: You would have to pay for the service for it to continue. It costs about $16 a month.
Q: The offer from Target includes $1 million of identity theft insurance coverage. What protection does that offer?
A: The insurance is very limited in scope, mainly covering incidental expenses, not monetary loss, notes Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.
While it includes coverage for lost wages from time spent repairing your damaged credit in the event of identity theft, that protection is capped at $1,000 a week for four weeks. The only instance in which you could be covered for an actual loss is if funds are electronically transferred from your account.
Q: Will this service protect me from having my identity stolen or fraudulent charges on my cards?
A: No. "It's essentially a notification service," says John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League. It's still up to consumers to be vigilant about checking their accounts and to take action if there is any unauthorized activity.
Consumers also need to be wary of scammers seeking to get even more information from them based on what they already have from the Target breach or other breaches, like e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
Thieves are seeking your Social Security number - something Target has said was not revealed in this breach. If they can talk you out of that information, it is possible they can open credit lines in your name, says Tim Rohrbaugh, chief information security officer at Intersections Inc., an identity theft prevention company.
Having credit monitoring won't protect you from this, but you will be alerted if it happens.
"It doesn't give you license to discard common sense and start clicking on embedded links in e-mails and coughing up all sorts of personal information," says Robert Siciliano, a security expert for the online security company McAfee.
Q: How do I sign up safely?
A: Go directly to Target's website, which has a link (creditmonitoring.target.com) where customers can request an authorization code to activate the service. It could take up to five days to get a code, but at least initially the codes are coming within minutes. That e-mail explains how to sign up.
Signing up will, ironically, require consumers to input more information - including their Social Security numbers. Beth Givens, executive director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says the advocacy group recommends consumers get the protection but noted that in situations like this, many are reluctant to give out their Social Security number.
"I hope that Experian's security is adequate, but how do any of us know for sure?," says Grant, of the Consumer Federation of America.
Q: So, should I sign up?
A: Consumer advocates and security experts say it can be helpful to sign up. But they caution: don't expect it to be a magic solution.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler)