Experts: Target's free credit-monitoring not enough by itself

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It was the data breach that shook the retail world. When Target Corp. announced in December that 110 million of its customers' payment and personal records had been breached, the news was unsettling — both because Target is such an iconic brand and because the breach was so invasive.

Target has been busily doing damage control, issuing major apologies, testifying before Congress and contributing $5 million to a nationwide cybersecurity campaign. The company's profits have plunged as wary consumers stayed away and Target still faces dozens of lawsuits by banks and others.

Target has been working to quell anxieties and rebuild the confidence of its shoppers. In its biggest mea culpa, the company offered Target customers free credit monitoring for a year. The deadline to sign up is April 23.

"Target understands some guests are nervous about the impact the recent data breach may have on them. We are offering this product in order to ease all guest concerns and provide peace of mind," said Target spokeswoman Sarah Van Nevel, in an email.

The free service is not limited to customers who shopped during the apparent data breach period, which Target initially identified as between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. Instead, the free credit monitoring is open to "anyone who shopped at Target." Ever.

But for those who sign up, it's no guarantee that cybercrooks won't steal your identity and wreak financial havoc in other ways, such as using stolen credit/debt card info to siphon money from your accounts.

"The service Target is giving away only monitors one of your three credit reports, which is like locking one of the three doors to your house," said John Ulzheimer, a longtime identity theft and credit reporting expert who writes for Mint.com and CreditSesame.com.

Credit monitoring is effective only when someone is using your personal information to apply for new accounts, such as car loans or credit cards, said Ulzheimer. "And in that case, the consumer better hope the lender pulls their Experian credit report or the free credit monitoring service won't set off any alarms."

Target's free credit monitoring applies only to a consumer's Experian credit reports, not those of Equifax or TransUnion, noted Ulzheimer, who previously worked for Equifax.

Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911, a company that provides identity theft recovery and other services, said there are lots of other tools for consumers.

Get free copies of your credit reports once a year from each of the three credit reporting bureaus by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.

Visit sites where you can obtain a free credit score, such as Credit.com, CreditKarma.com, Quizzle.com or CreditSesame.com.

Check bank and credit card statements routinely, if not daily. It only takes a few minutes but is an easy way to spot fraudulent charges.