How I protect myself from identity theft

Ask The Expert: How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft?

Question: So I had my identity stolen last month. Never knew what that really meant before. Here’s what it meant for me: Someone in Roanoke, Virginia, was buying sneakers and TVs on my credit card.

I was lucky, though. The credit card company called to tell me. So I didn’t get charged, but I did have to stop using my card until I got a new one sent to me.

I have no idea how the hell someone stole my credit card number. Now I’m freaked out it’ll happen again. Anything I can do to prevent it? How can I protect myself from identity theft?

— Andrew in Philadelphia

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastYou’re not alone, Andrew. Just last week, I saw a poll of 1,000 Americans from a security company called RSA. It said, “Nearly 50 percent have been a victim of a data breach.”

That’s a scary number. The next number was even scarier: “45 percent say even with all of the retail breaches, they have not changed their behavior when using credit and debit cards.”

What’s so frustrating is that protecting you identity is quite simple. While many topics covered here on can require some time and brainpower – from learning about your retirement saving options to saving on your student loans – these solutions are easy.

Identifying the solutions

I don’t know how your credit card number was stolen, Andrew, but I can share three simple ways to lower the chances it happens again…

  1. Shred those paper statements. We live in a tech era, but criminals make money by thinking old-school. Your monthly credit card statements contain all the information they need to run up big bills in your name.
  2. Check those statements. You were lucky, Andrew, that your credit card company recognized a suspicious pattern of spending. The best companies do that to protect both you and themselves. However, no system is foolproof. Review your statements each month to ensure you made all those purchases.
  3. Don’t sign blank receipts. If you’re ordering take-out from a restaurant and there’s a space for a tip, draw a line through it. Some of the hardest credit card theft to notice is the smallest.

If you do spot a problem, call the number on the back of your credit card right away. While many Americans complain about poor customer service in many areas, I’ve seldom heard any horror stories from credit card users either reporting or inquiring about fraud. These companies are serious about catching bad guys, and they desperately want your help.

Other kinds of ID theft

Of course, ID theft comes in many flavors. That’s why you should never carry your Social Security card in your wallet or give your Social Security number over the phone to anyone you don’t know. It’s why you should frequently change your online passwords and password-protect your smartphone and laptop.

If you want more advice on preventing ID theft — from simple tips all the way up to credit monitoring services — has dedicated an entire section of its Learning Center to the topic. As always, all the advice is vetted by experts and totally free.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

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