Identity theft is such a growing problem that it’s become almost routine—Marriott, MyFitness Pal, LinkedIn, Zynga, and even Equifax (of all places) have had high-profile online data breaches in recent years, affecting hundreds of millions of people. To help combat this problem, Experian and other companies are marketing “dark web scans” to prevent data breaches. But what is a dark web scan, and do you need it?
The dark web, explained
The dark web is a large, hidden network of websites not indexed or found on typical search engines. It’s also a hub of illegal activity, including the buying and selling of stolen financial and personal information. If your information ends up on dark web sites after a data breach, an identity thief could use that data to open credit cards, take out loans, or withdraw money from your bank account.
How dark web scans work
A dark scan will scan the dark web to see if medical identification info, bank account numbers, and Social Security numbers are being shared. If you get positive results, the dark scan service will suggest that you change your passwords, use stronger ones, or put a credit freeze on your credit profiles with the three major bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion). A negative search result doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t had a data breach, of course, as there’s no way for any company to search the entirety of the dark web.
Many of these services offer you a free scan, but that only covers certain information like phone numbers, passwords, and Social Security numbers. If you want to set up alerts, or search for other information like bank account numbers, passports, or your driver’s license, or have access to credit reports (which are already free), these services will typically charge a monthly fee (Experian offers this service for $9.99 per month after a 30-day free trial).
Is a dark web scan worth paying for?
Not necessarily. A dark scan will only reveal that your personal information is on the dark web. The most effective steps to protect yourself (cancelling cards, password changes, credit freezes) are free—you don’t need to pay a company for it unless you want to delegate the hassle. And considering the large number of data breaches, it’s actually easier and cheaper to assume your information has been compromised and practice good privacy habits, like frequent password changes.
In an interview for NBC News’ Better, Neal O’Farrell, executive director of the Identify Theft Council, called dark web scanning “a smoke and mirrors deal” that doesn’t “go to the cause of the problem, which is vigilance, awareness, taking care of your own personal information, freezing your credit.”
It’s also important to understand that the dark web is only one way of selling a stolen identity, as identity thieves can just as easily get this information through phishing or stealing your mail. Of course, a monitoring service can’t hurt if you want to spend the extra money for the alerts—just remember that you can proactively monitor and prevent identity theft for free, and that a dark web scan won’t offer complete protection.