LifeLock Founder Learns a Lesson in Marketing

Back on the 19th I discussed how 38 scammers had been indicted for a phishing scam that spanned 5 countries. That was great news and the article elicited a couple of responses. One of them, from Charlie B., read as follows:

I subscribed to lifelock, I think it is a little over priced for what they do. It is basically a service that does things that you are too lazy to do. The credit reporting companies have something called a fraud alert that they can put on your credit. When this is activated, no credit checks or new accounts can be done without contacting you first. You can just activate your own fraud alert by calling up the credit bureaus yourself.

I had to agree, another overly-hyped service for people too lazy to do something that they could easily do themselves for free. It kind of makes you wonder about the culture we’re living in. Imagine then, my reaction when I read this on CNN.com this morning:

 
 
Fraud-prevention pitchman becomes ID theft victim

SAN JOSE , California (AP) -- Todd Davis (left) has dared criminals for two years to try stealing his identity: Ads for his fraud-prevention company, LifeLock, even offer his Social Security number next to his smiling mug.

Now, LifeLock customers in Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia are suing Davis, claiming his service didn't work as promised and he knew it wouldn't, because the service had failed even him.

Attorney David Paris said he found records of other people applying for or receiving driver's licenses at least 20 times using Davis' Social Security number, though some of the applications may have been rejected because data in them didn't match what the Social Security Administration had on file.

The story goes on, detailing additional lawsuits in Arizona and California—the latter instigated by the Experian credit bureau—but the point of it is that LifeLock, and services like it, do not—cannot—provide the kind of blanket identity theft protection they claim in their advertising, hence the lawsuits. Services like this can only help with certain kinds of fraud by helping consumers set up alerts with the three big credit bureaus. What it doesn’t do is protect against identity theft through other avenues and for other purposes such as using a stolen Social Security number to get a driver’s license or set up utilities.

It also points out something else: Some people are just asking for trouble.

I remember when I first heard Davis’ pitch on the radio. I turned to my wife, made some trifling comment comparing the man’s intellect to a box of rocks and wondered aloud how long it would be before we heard that someone had stolen his identity. Now we know: 2 years.

So what exactly does LifeLock offer and can you do these things for yourself?

  • Order credit reports . You are already entitled to a free annual credit report and (depending on your state of residence) a free report each time someone checks your credit. All you have to do is request them.
  • Establish fraud alerts with the major credit bureaus . This is something that you can do with a phone call to each of the credit bureaus.
  • Identity checks when credit is applied for in your name . While this is something that the credit granter should be doing, both the credit bureaus and the credit card companies have reliable safeguards to keep any damage to a minimum.
  • Junk e-mail restriction . Eliminating junk e-mails is as simple as finding an e-mail service with good filtering technology. I recommend www.gmail.com . Just remember, don’t both with the opt-out links because all they do is demonstrate that you have a “live” e-mail address. Junk e-mail is best left unopened, deleted and ignored.
  • Restrictions on pre-approved credit offers . These e-mails can be handled the same way as other spam—don’t open them, delete them, ignore them.
 
There are a couple of interesting items on LifeLock’s product offerings (taken from lifelock.com ):
 
  • eRecon scours known criminal websites for the illegal selling or trading of your personal information (including your Social Security number, credit card numbers, driver’s license and email address, if provided).
  • TrueAddress notifies you when we detect any new address information associated with your name in address databases nationwide. This helps alert you if a criminal has changed your address to steal mail and obtain your financial information.

As interesting as these sound, the first relies on known criminal websites rather than the majority of new and unknown sites while the other, your address, is actually something that shows up on your credit report. The bottom line, again, is that this is nothing you can’t do yourself and nothing that will allow you to indiscriminately hand out your social security number as the ads imply.

And that is the problem.
 

Call it arrogance, call it pride; call it simple, plain stupidity. Call it what you will, but Davis has spent two years asking for this kind of trouble and now he’s got it. He’s got the misery of cleaning up this mess and he’s got something else, the humiliation of being a victim of the very crime his service was supposed to prevent. He can talk all he likes, make any excuses he wants, explain until he is blue in the face, but his credibility and that of his company are badly, if not irreparably, damaged. For some, this is justice—the karmic kind, if nothing else—for what they see as false advertising and deceptive practices. Not for me. For me this is a lesson in both humility and common sense, not to mention the price of stupidity.

Humility and common sense go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to advertising and marketing. True, a daring stunt will almost certainly arouse the public interest and so help drum-up business, but there is a point where you have to ask what will happen if this blows up in my face? That is a question your in-born common sense should ask whenever you put yourself at risk, but without a level of humility, you will never really ask that question, let alone answer it. The result: the time and expense of stupidity catching up with you.

Remember, then, the cardinal rule of advertising: It must be supportable. If you cannot fully support your advertising claims with hard facts, don’t make them. This doesn’t mean that in the interest of full disclosure you have to trumpet the weaknesses of your product or service from the rooftops, but it does mean that if you claim your product will shield consumers from any and all kinds of identity theft to the point that they can irresponsibly hand out their Social Security numbers like Pez candies in a kindergarten class, then that product better work as advertised.

LifeLock doesn’t and now it’s paying the price.
 
That is a lesson Davis and his partners have had to learn the hard way. Do yourself and your business a favor and learn from their example.