Canadians rattled by the massive Equifax data breach may turn to credit monitoring and anti-identify theft services for peace of mind, but in most cases they'll be paying more for what is presently available for little or no cost, according to experts.
Consumers can already contact the two main credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, by mail, fax or telephone to receive a physical copy of their credit report, or access it online, usually for a fee. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada recommends requesting from one bureau, then waiting six months before ordering from the other.
It also warns that fraudsters may offer free credit scores in an attempt to share your personal information — adding to the complexity of the existing web of credit monitoring services.
However, amid an increasing number of high-profile cyberattacks in recent years, Equifax, TransUnion and some Canadian banks and fintechs have introduced identity theft protection and credit monitoring services.
Features typically include daily access to credit scores, credit monitoring and alerts and internet scanning to detect if a consumer's personal financial data is being used on suspicious websites.
Costs vary, but Equifax charges about $19.99 per month in Canada for its Complete Premier service, according to its website.
However, Equifax has waived the fees for this service for both Canadian and U.S. consumers for one year after the cyberattack announced last month, which affected some 145.5 million Americans, but only about 8,000 Canadians.
The company has said it will notify those Canadians by mail and offered free credit monitoring and identity theft protection for 12 months to those who were impacted.
However, Ann Cavoukian, the former federal privacy commissioner and privacy expert, says that's simply not a long enough time frame.
"Identity thieves are very smart. They often lay low, sometimes for a year, and then when everything has settled down, then they strike," she said.
Equifax published a letter apologizing to the millions of people whose personal information was put at risk and promised access to a new free credit locking service, or "freeze", for life - but only to U.S. consumers. Equifax Canada said in an email that these services do not apply to Canadian consumers.
While 49 out of 50 U.S. states have a law stipulating that consumers must be able to put a credit "freeze" on their file, the action is not available in Canada, according to John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
North of the border, the two credit data agencies — Equifax and TransUnion — are regulated by individual provinces and territories. Ontario became the first to put forward legislation to ensure consumers have the option to place an alert on their personal credit file in 2006. Manitoba followed suit in 2010 with a similar law.
Currently, Canadian consumers have the option to put a fraud alert on their files with both Equifax and TransUnion. When creditors see this warning on a consumer's file, they contact them before extending new credit, such as a loan or new credit card.
At Equifax Canada, there is no cost for a fraud alert and it will stay on the file for six years, according to its customer service line. The cost of a fraud alert at TransUnion is usually $5 plus tax, a spokesman says, but it is currently available for free online. It too will remain on the file for six years.
Scott Hannah, the president and chief executive of Credit Counselling Canada, a non-profit service for consumers, says a fraud alert, as well as requesting a copy of a personal credit file once a year and taking steps to protect your data should be sufficient. However, having instant access to their credit score and immediate alerts of suspicious activity may offer more peace of mind, he said.
"Maybe it takes away that worry, but does it provide an additional level of security for the individual? I don't know that it does. I think that you can do things on your own."
Armina Ligaya, The Canadian Press