Avoid Credit Card Identity Theft: 10 Introductory Tips

By: Thomas LindstrÃ?m

It can happen to anyone. The phone rings and a collection agency demands that you pay past-due accounts for goods you never ordered. The supermarket refuses your checks because you have a history of bouncing them. But you have always paid bills on time. What has happened?

If you're a victim of identity theft, you could be left with bills, bad credit and the hassle of dealing with financial agencies and police departments to clear your name.

The crime of identity theft is on the rise. Recent surveys show there are currently about 9 million victims each year. Using a variety of methods, criminals steal Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, credit card numbers, ATM cards, telephone calling cards, and other pieces of individuals' identities such as date of birth. They use this information to impersonate their victims, spending as much money as they can in as short a time as possible before moving on to someone else's name and identifying information.

There are two types of identity theft.

- "Account takeover" occurs when a thief acquires your existing credit account information and purchases products and services using either the actual credit card or simply the account number and expiration date.

- "Application fraud" is what some experts call "true name fraud." The thief uses your SSN and other identifying information to open new accounts in your name. Victims are not likely to learn of application fraud for some time, because the monthly account statements are mailed to an address used by the imposter. In contrast, victims learn of account takeover when they receive their monthly account statement. This guide discusses strategies for reducing the risk of both types of fraud.

Generally, victims of credit card fraud are liable for no more than the first $50 of the loss. (Truth in Lending Act, Fair Credit Billing Act, 15 USC sec. 1601) In most cases, the victim will not be required to pay any part of the loss. But debit card users have less protection against fraud. Not only are individuals' checking accounts wiped out, debit card users could be liable for the total amount of the loss depending on how quickly they report the loss to the financial institution.

Take these steps to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft:

1. Reduce the number of credit and debit cards you carry in your wallet. We recommend that you do not use debit cards because of the potential for losses to your checking account (see above). Instead, carry one or two credit cards and your ATM card in your wallet. Nonetheless, debit cards are popular. If you do use them, take advantage of online access to your bank account to monitor account activity frequently. Report evidence of fraud to your financial institution immediately.

2. When using your credit and debit cards at restaurants and stores, pay close attention to how the magnetic stripe information is swiped by the waiter or clerk. Dishonest employees have been known to use small hand-held devices called skimmers to quickly swipe the card and then later download the account number data onto a personal computer. The thief uses the account data for Internet shopping and/or the creation of counterfeit cards.

3. Do not use debit cards when shopping online. Use a credit card because you are better protected in case of fraud.

4. Keep a list or photocopy of all your credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, and investments -- the account numbers, expiration dates and telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments -- in a secure place (not your wallet or purse) so you can quickly contact these companies in case your credit cards have been stolen or accounts are being used fraudulently.

5. Never give out your SSN, credit or debit card number or other personal information over the phone, by mail, or on the Internet unless you have a trusted business relationship with the company and you have initiated the call. Identity thieves have been known to call their victims with a fake story that goes something like this. "Today is your lucky day! You have been chosen by the Publishers Consolidated Sweepstakes to receive a free trip to the Bahamas. All we need is your Social Security number, credit card number and expiration date to verify you as the lucky winner."

6. Always take credit card receipts with you. Never toss them in a public trash container. When shopping, put receipts in your wallet rather than in the shopping bag.

7. Never permit your credit card number to be written onto your checks. It's a violation of laws in most countries, and puts you at risk for fraud.

8. Watch the mail when you expect a new or reissued credit card to arrive. Contact the issuer if the card does not arrive.

9. Order your credit report at least once a year. Federal law gives you the right to one free credit report each year from the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you are a victim of identity theft, your credit report will contain the tell-tale signs inquiries that were not generated by you, as well as credit accounts that you did not open. The earlier you detect fraud, the easier and quicker it will be to clean up your credit files and regain your financial health.

10. Shield your hand when using a bank ATM machine or making long distance phone calls with your phone card. "Shoulder surfers" may be nearby with binoculars or video camera.

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