More than three million people in the United States were the victims of identity-theft-related fraud in the past year, according to a recent survey by the Federal Trade Commission. These people have had accounts opened in their names by scam artists, they’ve had their names given to the police by crooks stopped for various infractions, and they’ve had their homes sold out from underneath them. Damages to these victims average more than $10,000 per theft.Grim as these statistics may be, the growing amount of credit card fraud is even worse: more than five million people had sham transactions dropped onto their credit card statements last year, and more than a million others have had non-credit-card accounts misused, including savings and checking accounts. Fortunately, you can protect yourself using a combination of ingenuity and tech savvy.
The whole foundation of the credit system is fundamentally insecure. A credit card number is really nothing more than a password-a password that’s not even secret, because you need to share it in order to use it. Just about the only way that you can detect misuse is to watch your accounts for unauthorized activity.
Keeping such a watchful eye is a lot easier now than it used to be. Credit card companies allow you to view your transactions on secure Web sites. For many people, however, even the few minutes it takes to deal with these sites is a big disincentive. But personal-finance programs like Quicken or Money streamline this process. I use Quicken, which automatically downloads new transactions from my credit cards, bank accounts, and investments with a single mouse click. To use this feature, you first store all of your account numbers and passwords in the program’s “PIN Vault.” There’s no need for you to memorize all those digits: the information is kept encrypted under a master pass phrase.
Getting Quicken set up is only half the battle, of course. You also have to manually review your downloaded transactions every few days to find out if somebody is using your credit card without your authorization. Banks and credit card companies are always looking for fraud as well, but they frequently don’t catch it until it is too late. You can nip the problem in the bud by calling up your credit card company and asking for a new account number at the first sign of fraud.