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You can't open a newspaper or a browser without reading about some data spill that has put consumers' personal information at risk. Over the past three years, more than 220 million private records have been lost or stolen, according to the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. In 2007, 8 million to 15 million Americans had their identities stolen. The odds that it will happen to you are about one in five, according to surveys conducted by the Chubb Group.
Identity theft is a national epidemic, but some firms also see it as a marketing opportunity. In fact, some credit bureaus and banks that facilitated the spread of easy credit--and in the process unwittingly made identity theft a more profitable crime--now sell services to help you avoid having your identity pilfered.
For $10 to $20 a month, a company such as LifeLock or TransUnion will monitor your credit reports, alert you if anyone opens an account in your name, and help you recover fraudulent charges. But you can do many of the things these services offer to do, at no cost except for the effort (see "DIY Identity-Theft Protection: A 12-Step Program" for details).
To assess the paid services, we signed up with six leading firms. Even services that worked as advertised weren't comprehensive. Only two--Suze Orman's Identity Theft Kit and Identity Guard--offered protection for anything beyond financial fraud. Using any of the services is better than doing nothing, but you may still have to work to safeguard your identity.