Identity theft isn’t pretty. There’s the stress over misuse of credit in your name, the hassle of monitoring and/or canceling accounts, and the potential expense you can face from fraudulent charges.
Luckily, when fraudulent charges happen in your name, you can take steps to avoid footing those bills. So while you may suffer “losses,” those are often shouldered by the financial provider or simply removed without an obligation for you to pay.
But it’s still a hassle! It takes time you don’t have, fighting charges you didn’t make. So what’s the solution? Use your credit reports to catch fraudulent charges that have been made, as well as to avoid new ones.
How your credit reports help you catch fraud
So let’s say a thief steals your identity. If they just stole account information for one card, then you can use your monthly statements to make sure extra charges aren’t being made.
But what if your personal information gets stolen? If something like your Social Security number gets compromised, then savvy fraudsters can take out all kinds of debts in your name – new debts you might not even know existed until a collector started calling.
This is where your credit reports come in handy. You can monitor your reports to see if any new accounts are opened in your name. You can also check to see if there’s any suspicious activity on one of your accounts. Of course, if you want to keep an eye on it, you’re going to need more than the one free report you’re allowed to get every twelve months. Instead, you need something like an ID theft protection service. This way, you can monitor the activity in your reports over a longer period of time.
Placing fraud alerts in your credit file
If you’re really concerned that your identity has been stolen, you can place fraud alerts in your credit reports directly with each credit bureau. There are three types of alerts that can be placed:
An initial fraud alert is placed with one credit bureau (they notify the other two) and lasts at least 90 days.
After 90 days, if you’re still concerned, you can place an extended fraud alert on your report for up to 7 years.
There is also an active military duty alert that service members can use to make sure their credit isn’t misused while they’re away.
In any case, all pre-approved credit and insurance offers are stopped for two years. In addition, you have extra steps to confirm that you are you when you want to open any account.
The issue with fraud alerts
Obviously, the point of credit report fraud alert is to prevent someone from opening a new account in your name. A side-effect is that you, yourself, will also have a harder time opening new credit in your name.
If you’re applying for a mortgage or car loan when a fraud alert is active on your account, make sure to tell the lender so they can be aware of potential roadblocks. One of the roadblocks is that the credit bureaus may call you at the home or office number you provided when the alert was placed. If you can’t be reached at that number, then you can face delays.
This call-before-credit-acceptance is also going to make it impossible to apply for credit when you’re standing in a store. So let’s say you’re in a furniture store and see a bedroom set that you can’t live without. Even better, the store has a no-interest until X-date financing offer that’s just too good to miss.
Too bad. Since you’re standing in the store, they can’t contact you at home to make sure you are you. So more often than not, you won’t be able to take advantage of offers like those on the spot.
Of course, once you’ve placed a fraud alert on your credit reports, you can choose to remove it at any time. So once you’re fairly certain that you’re not going to have any more issues, go ahead and remove the alerts to make your life easier.
Fraud is up, but is security?
As banks are doing their best to combat the ever-growing theft of bank accounts, identity theft, and other types of fraud, scammers are working just as hard to learn new ways to steal and beat banks to the punch.
The CreditCards.com poll says 25 percent of Americans are being contacted about a fraudulent debit card transaction. This isn’t surprising considering stolen debit information is up 70 percent from this time last year.
It’s easy for scammers to steal bank data since ATMs are compromised constantly. From 2014 to 2015, ATM scams were up 546 percent. It’s no wonder banks are trying to let consumers know when there is a data breach. It’s constantly happening and doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
CreditCards.com says banks are putting serious bucks behind anti-fraud measures to identify scammers sooner, but they can’t always keep up. Fraudsters are making their scams harder to detect. By the time banks counteract one fraud, another one (or two!) have popped up in its place.
Safety Tips to Avoid Debit Card Fraud
Lock it up: While we’re always careful about our possessions in public, don’t trust your peers even in private, whether it’s a gym in your apartment complex or a gathering or your friends.
Trust but verify: In fact, don’t even trust your friends and family. If that sound harsh, the 17-year-old paid for his Miami college tour with cards stolen from people he knew. Police said,”One victim was a neighbor and the others are relatives.”
Pay cash where you can: Sometimes there is not a theft of actual cards, but of the numbers from customers who swiped their credit cards. These purchases are often so small, you don’t really rack up any credit card points from them.
Pay for peace of mind: Obviously, you should check your credit card statements for errors. But if you want someone else to do it for you, it’ll cost you. LifeLock, the best-known monitoring service, starts at $10 per month. CreditPower, the cheapest service, starts at $7 per month. We’re biased at Debt.com and suggest going for the lowest price, since they all do the same thing equally well.
Just say no: Go to OptOutPreScreen.com and opt out of receiving those annoying credit card offers in the mail — which thieves can manipulate to steal your identity.
Stay alert: If you’re worried someone may have made you a victim and you aren’t sure yet, consider a fraud alert. File it for free with one of the three credit reporting companies, and it’ll tell the other two. All three will then pay extra-close attention to any information requests about you, They’re easy to apply for and last 90 days, and you can renew them. Then again, they can make handling your own business (like getting a new job or mortgage) go much slower.
How to limit your losses
On late fees and bounced checks
The best way to avoid the damage of a low balance after getting scammed is to be upfront with your bank. Jonathon Ping’s MyMoneyBlog gives advice for getting overdraft fees waived, but it’s relevant for fraud victims, too. Basically…
Be nice but firm. Remember that bank customer service reps are people, too.
Tell them your personal story. Overdraft fees are (usually) your fault, while scams aren’t. Your bank should be willing to work with you once you share what’s going on. Chase Bank has a page dedicated to explaining the first steps to take if you think you’ve been a fraud victim.
Try multiple mediums. If a phone call doesn’t work, try visiting a bank branch in person and explaining what happened.
On debit or ATM cards
Under something called the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, you will not be held responsible for unauthorized transactions for a missing ATM or debit card if you report it before someone uses it. But you could lose a lot of money if you delay reporting it. According to the Federal Trade Commission, if you report it stolen within two days of the theft, your maximum loss is $50. But wait until after 60 days to report it, and you could lose everything in your bank account.
On credit cards
Again, you should report a theft or unauthorized charge to your credit card companies as soon as possible. Credit cards have better protections built into them, thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act. Your card can only be charged up to $50, when used without your permission.
You should never give out your credit card number to someone who asks for it over the phone. Sometimes scammers have part of your billing account information already, or pretend to. They will try to get you to “confirm” the rest so they can say you approved the charge. This might make it harder for you to fight later.
You should never mail a money order or use a wire transfer for someone you don’t know personally. If the business is a scam, you will never see that money again. Using cash causes you to give up your right to dispute fraudulent charges.
How to file a complaint
If you’re a victim of identity theft, or if someone is fraudulently claiming that you owe debt, you can use the FTC Complaint Assistant. Should they “detect patterns of fraud and abuse” in a certain business, they may be able to take action to prevent that company from doing business anymore.
If someone keeps calling you at home and you believe they are a spam company, you can add your number to the National Do Not Call Registry to prevent them from contacting you. You can file a complaint and get them in trouble if they do it anyway after a month.
If the business is listed by the Better Business Bureau — which is not affiliated with the government, but is one of the first places to check for rip-offs — you can file a complaint there to raise your odds of seeing some results. Their rating will drop if the business doesn’t resolve your complaint.
Article last modified on August 9, 2019. Published by Debt.com, LLC
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