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Protect Your Plastic

Watch over your cards.
As soon as you receive a new debit or credit card, sign it in ink and record your account number, expiration date, and the phone number for reporting lost or stolen cards. File this record in a safe, accessible place -- not in your wallet, and periodically check your cards to make sure none are missing.

To save yourself a lot of hassle and to protect against identity theft if your wallet is lost or stolen, carry only the cards you need and keep the others in a secure place. And don’t carry your Social Security card with you; keep it in a safe place.

When you use your cards, make sure the total purchase amounts are correct before you sign sales slips, draw a line through any blank spaces above the totals, and don’t sign blank receipts.

Don’t let your cards out of your sight, and once you get them back, double-check that they’re yours and take your receipts.

What’s more, don’t leave your cards in cars, glove compartments, or hotel rooms, and when using a terminal remember to remove your card along with your receipt.

Monitor your credit report.
Each American is entitled to a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months from each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies upon your request. Regularly checking and verifying the information in your credit report is crucial to stopping identity theft. Staggering requests among the reporting companies can help you view your credit over the year. Your credit score can also be obtained for a nominal fee. To request your free credit report by phone call toll-free 877-322-8228 or online at

Equifax 800-685-1111
Experian 888-397-3742
Trans Union 800-888-4213

In addition, to help prevent fraud, request that your name be kept off credit bureau lists that creditors and insurers use to send pre-approved offers. Thieves sometimes intercept these solicitations and then use them to get credit in your name. See the What is Identity Theft in the Information Center for more information.

Protect your account information.
Don’t give your credit card number to anyone over the phone unless you placed the call, and only if you’re sure you’re dealing with a reputable company. And don’t give any information to callers who say they need your credit card or checking account number for "verification" or security purposes.

Furthermore, never mail a postcard with your account information on it; put cards in sealed envelopes instead. And don’t loan your cards to anyone you don’t trust since you’ll be responsible for anything they use it for. This includes a member of your immediate family who uses your card with or without your knowledge.

Before using your cards for online transactions, check out website reputations and security policies. When you use a secure browser (the software you use to navigate the Internet), like Internet Explorer, and a website uses a secure Internet technology, the information you send is encrypted.

Report loss or fraud immediately.
If your credit or debit cards are lost or stolen, or you find an incorrect or unauthorized transaction on your statement, notify your card issuers immediately. They can add a fraud alert to your credit file. Likewise, if you don’t get your statement or card when expected, notify the card issuer right away. If you think your cards have been stolen, also call your local law enforcement agency right away.

VISA and MasterCard’s zero liability policies cover most U.S.issued consumer credit card and debit card transactions made over the card issuer’s network. So in general, when you shop online, in person, or through the mail using VISA or MasterCard cards, you’ll owe nothing in the event of unauthorized or fraudulent use of your card or account information.

However, these policies don’t cover ATM and commercial card transactions, or non-branded PIN transactions. And they don’t cover losses if you were grossly negligent, which may include your delay for an unreasonable time in reporting unauthorized transactions.

The zero liability policies also don’t cover losses if you were fraudulent in handling your account or card, or if you failed to exercise reasonable care in safeguarding your card from risk of loss or theft.

In these exception cases, the amount of loss you’re liable for depends on the type of card you used and when you notified the card issuer. Since the specifics vary depending on your cardholder agreement, ask your financial institution for details.

Know your rights.
With the exception of online, telephone, and mail orders, you should never be required to give your name, address, phone number or other personal information to use your credit card.

Don’t write your Social Security number on your checks, either, and don’t imprint your driver’s license number on your checks.

Likewise, don’t give your credit card number to validate your check. A credit card number added to the personal information on your check gives thieves all the information they need to create a counterfeit card or to commit telemarketing or mail fraud. That’s why it’s illegal in many states for merchants to even ask for this information.

Save your receipts.
Don’t leave receipts for thieves to find in places such as gas station self-serve machines or in empty bags that get tossed in the trash. When you get home, put all your card receipts in one place so you can easily find them when you get your monthly statements.

When your bill arrives, compare your receipts against your statement for accuracy, and keep receipts for major purchases in case there’s a problem with your merchandise. When you’re ready to discard your receipts, shred them, or at least black out or tear through the account number. Also shred anything with your account number on it before throwing it away, such as your monthly bill and the form that came with your card.

Use caution at ATMS and protect your PIN.
To avoid foul play, use only well-lit, well-situated ATMs, and avoid using them at night. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable by the surroundings or any people in the area, trust your instincts and find another ATM. Minimize the time you spend at an ATM by having your card ready, filling out all forms in advance, and putting your cash and card away immediately after your transaction.

When using a drive-through ATM, lock your car doors and roll up all the other windows. If you use an indoor ATM that requires your card to open, don’t let any strangers through the door with you. And always remember to take your receipt and your card from the machine.
Treat your personal identification number (PIN) as the key to your deposit account. If you’re allowed to choose your PIN, don’t choose something obvious like your birthday, street address, or phone number. Memorize your number, don’t write it on your card or anywhere in your wallet, and shield the keypad when entering it so no one can see you punch it in.

For more information