We don’t want to make you paranoid. But these days, you have to be on the lookout for fraud, even via products that are supposed to prevent fraud.
"It’s quite an irony that these identity theft products have been consistently found to be sold in a deceptive manner,” says Prentiss Cox, an associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau just fined U.S. Bank in connection with identity protection and credit monitoring services it was selling. Customers were charged for credit monitoring by a company the bank hired, called Affinion.
Banks need written permission to monitor a person’s credit report. But the CFPB says U.S. Bank started charging consumers before they signed permission forms the bank sent out. Their credit was never monitored, but they were charged anyway, according to the CFPB.
“The bureau determined that this conduct was an unfair practice and ordered U.S. Bank to repay consumers approximately $48 million,” says Deb Morris, the deputy enforcement director at the CFPB.
Neither U.S. Bank nor Affinion would agree to an interview, but both sent statements. Affinion says it "proactively built and implemented a solution over two years ago to obtain the required authorizations upon enrollment to our service."
The U.S. Bank statement says the problem was with Affinion: "As soon as we became aware of the issues with Affinion, we took swift action to protect our customers, and ultimately, discontinued our relationship with Affinion approximately two years ago."
‘That’s that Bart Simpson defense," says Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate with U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "I wasn’t there. I didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything.”
Mierzwinski says fraud in these anti-fraud products is widespread because they're profitable, and banks can automatically charge us once we sign up. Mierzwinski says don’t even sign up for stuff that’s free at first.
“The free trial offer only lasts for three or five days," he says. "And if you forget to or fail to cancel, they start billing your credit card on a monthly basis.”
The Bottom line: Depressing as it may be, always watch out for fraud — even from those who offer to help for free.