Who Ya Gonna Call When Your Credit Card is Stolen?

Category: Security

What can you do to protect yourself from fraud when your walletful of credit cards is stolen or lost? There is a bulletin of advice that’s been floating around the Internet for at least 13 years. Purportedly written by an attorney, the copy I received recently is entitled, “ATTORNEY'S ADVICE - NO CHARGE.” Yes, it's free, but is it good advice? Here's the scoop on that, and my best advice for how to handle a lost or stolen credit card…

Lost Your Wallet? Here's What to Do...

A friend recently forwarded me a list of things that you should do to protect yourself from fraud. It deals with what to do if you you lose your wallet, how to protect your credit cards, and some check writing tips. I had a feeling of deja vu when I read the email from my friend. So I did some digging and found copies of that message in my email from 2008 and 2006. A Google search turned up a nearly identical copy of the "ATTORNEY'S ADVICE" bulletin posted on a web page dating from 2005.

Call me skeptical, but I don’t believe an attorney would pass around free advice without his name and contact info on it. It’s more likely this advice is written by some layman who decided to attribute it to an anonymous attorney in order to lend it an air of authority. Some of the advice is good, but some is outdated or was always wrong. In this article, I'll try to sort the proverbial wheat from the metaphorical chaff. Here is the advice, along with my comments:

“Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put 'PHOTO ID REQUIRED.”

Technically, a merchant is required to reject unsigned cards. But when was the last time any merchant did so? More often than not, you just shove your card into a terminal and the merchant never sees the back of it. And if you shop online, no signature is required. So in practice, it is rarely necessary to sign the back of a card.

What to do - Lost my wallet and credit cards

It's true that signing a card gives a thief your signature to practice forging. So I would go without signing. Instead, write “PHOTO ID REQUIRED” in the signature space. That should satisfy persnickety merchants, but leave room to sign the card if you run into an especially dogmatic merchant.

“When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the 'For/Memo' line. Instead, just put the last four numbers.”

Who writes checks to credit card companies these days? But this outdated advice leads to interesting facts about the data that is encoded in a card number. It turns out that digits 1-6 identify the card issuing bank and credit card network. Digits 7-15 identify the cardholder. Digit 16 is a "check digit" that is used to verify the other digits. If you're mailing a check along with the payment coupon, the last four digits of the card number will appear there as well. So there's no good reason to include ANY of your card digits on the check.

“Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home phone. If you have a PO Box use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. Never have your SS# printed on your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have it printed, anyone can get it.”

Check your credit report on a regular basis, to see if there is any incorrect information, or accounts you don't recognize. My article Free Credit Reports Online explains how U.S. citizens can get three free credit reports per year, and avoid the credit report scammers. See also my article Ten Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft for some common sense things you can do to protect against scams, credit card fraud and identity theft.

This tip is like a drink from a firehose; let's parse it out. No explanation is given for why it’s better for thieves to know your work info than your home info, and I cannot think of one. And more often, employers rely on the fact everyone has a mobile phone, and do not provide phones to workers.

But yes, keep your Social Security Number to yourself. Business often ask for your SSN because they need a "unique identifier" for you. Instead, ask if you can provide some other proof of identity. Don't write it on a check, ever. The only exception might be when mailing your tax return to the IRS. Remember your SSN is also on the tax form included in that envelope.

“Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place.”

This advice is OK if the contents of your wallet never change; it would get tedious fast if you follow other advice to carry only cards you plan to use each time you leave your house or hotel room. Also, it may be difficult to read those tiny phone numbers on a photocopy without a magnifying glass.

But there's a HUGE caveat to this tip. Don't do this at work, the library, a business center, or with a photocopier in any public place. Modern copiers have hard drives that store images of every copy made. Copiers are often sold or discarded with those hard drives intact. You see where I'm going with this, right?

My advice is to create a document that lists all of your important info that is stored on cards: driver’s license, credit/debit cards, library cards, rewards cards, insurance cards, etc. Next to each of them list the appropriate phone number to call to report a lost/stolen card. Here are some other important phone numbers to include in this document.

“Fraud reporting” phone numbers of the three major national credit reporting agencies; call them immediately after reporting your cards missing, and request a “fraud alert” on your file. This will prevent unauthorized applications for credit in your name that thieves may make. You should also call the fraud reporting line of the Social Security Administration. The phone numbers to include in your document are:

  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
  • Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742
  • Trans Union: 1-800-680 7289
  • Social Security Administration fraud line: 1-800-269-0271

Now save your document to Dropbox or some other place you can access from anywhere. If you print a copy, DO NOT carry it around with you! Keep this document in a safe, a safe-deposit box, or some other secure location.

Some later versions of the bulletin include this advice about hotel stays:

“When you check out of a hotel that uses cards for keys, do not turn the "keys" in. Take them with you and destroy them. Those little cards have on them all of the information you gave the hotel, including address and credit card numbers and expiration dates. Someone with a card reader, or employee of the hotel, can access all that information with no problem whatsoever.”

This one made me laugh. The hotel obviously has your name, address, and credit card information! You gave all that to the desk clerk when checking in, and he or she can recall it easily on their display. Further, no hotel chain actually does this. The key card simply grants access to the specified room, and once you check out, it is deactivated and useless.

And finally, the “attorney” advises people who have experienced credit card fraud to file a police report on the remote chance the local cops will do something. I guess it can't hurt, but personally, I would not bother. They'll probably just tell you to call your bank and refer you to the list of contacts above. If the officer has a sense of humor, he may even tell you to do a Google search for "ATTORNEY'S ADVICE - NO CHARGE."

So that’s my updated advice. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Who Ya Gonna Call When Your Credit Card is Stolen?"

Posted by:

Mark H.
04 Dec 2018

For credit card fraud, calling the card issuer is usually sufficient. I did have it happen once. Card got cancelled and a new one was issued along with new account. For actual identity theft, a police report is suggested by the FTC along with other steps. My guess is that shows that you aren't just crying wolf. Had that happen when some amateur tried to file my federal income tax return for me. IRS contacted me and wanted to know why I was filing on Dec. 31 for that tax year. Thanks to that, I now get a PIN number to file my taxes.

Posted by:

04 Dec 2018

> If you're mailing a check along with the payment coupon, the last four digits of the card number will appear there as well. So there's no good reason to include ANY of your card digits on the check.

Bob, you didn't fully think this through. There are good reasons for including your last 4 digits on the check. If your payment coupon and the check get separated, or there is some question about which account the payment applies to, the last 4 digits (along with the name & address on the check) can serve as part of the data which helps to verify the account to which the payment applies.

True, it does not *precisely* identify the card account, but that's not what I'm talking about.

Posted by:

Bruce Booker
04 Dec 2018

If your credit card was stolen, file a police report even if there is nothing the police can or will do about it. (Don't bother if you lost it.) Police ascertain crime patterns by analyzing crime reports. If there is an increase in car break-ins in a certain area, or a sudden rash of pickpockets at a certain location, they can and often do direct resources to target that problem. If no one files reports, even the ones the police won't investigate further, they have no way of knowing those crime patterns. Filing a police report isn't likely to get your credit card back, but it might keep other people from becoming victims. I know. I spent 37 years in law enforcement.

Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
04 Dec 2018

Credit Card signature: I once had the Post Office refuse an unsigned credit card because I had written "Check ID" in the signature block. I signed it in front of him, and he accepted it. Typical government bureaucrat!

SSN; Back 15 or 20 years ago, military commissaries and exchange stores required that your "service number" - your SSN - be pre-printed on all checks. Fortunately, they saw the error of their ways.

Copiers; most reputable copier companies will, on request, either give you the hard drive from your copier, or securely wipe the hard drive - or destroy it on request. I work for a copier company, and this is one of the services that we offer.

Finally... Who still uses checks!?! I think I've written three paper checks in the past year, and two of them were for Girl Scout Cookies. Online banking is the way to go!

Posted by:

04 Dec 2018

Any merchant that is too dogmatic to accept my card that has "Ask for ID" instead of my signature on the back will lose my business. That said, it's been decades since anyone other than a motel clerk asked for my ID.

My phone number does not appear on my checks. The address on my checks is my mailing address, not my physical home address (I use a private mail box service for mail). If someone thinks they just
have to have my phone number (but really don't), I use an old phone number I no longer use with the exchange replaced with 555. That reduces spam calls to my home phone dramatically.

Posted by:

04 Dec 2018

@ Ken Mitchell I still have to write checks to pay my monthly mobile home space rent and the oddball vendor that's still in the mid-20th century. Otherwise, I either pay by card or online. I average 13 checks a year.

Posted by:

04 Dec 2018

My credit card has "not valid unless signed" on the back. Make of that what you want.
We find many stores don't even want a signature on a purchase under $100, but spend a penny over that and they want to see your Driver's License, which incidentally, VISA, at least, actually inform retailers they cannot refuse a card just because someone won't provide picture ID.
Then of course we get to the fact that, "strictly speaking" even cash is actually not something a store HAS to accept, there is no payment type that must be accepted.
Life can be complicated!

Posted by:

bob a
05 Dec 2018

I have an all-in-one printer and use it to scan both sides of all my cards and store them in a locked file on my hard drive (and both backups). I can't imagine having a photocopy of anything nowadays.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2018

Had identity stolen in 2014 and fraudulent IRS tax return (with refund) submitted with name and SSN. Now get a PIN in order to file each year. More importantly, multiple attempts were made to open a bank account in my name. The three Agencies would only freeze credit reporting for 6 months unless I submitted a police report no. Filing the police report, my credit reporting is now frozen for five years.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2018

This is directly responsible for the recent rapid rise in the homeless population. People are so ground down by the hassles of "modern society" that they have ditched everything with an account number on it and opted for a dirty cardboard sign, shopping cart and sleeping bag.

OK I'm exaggerating, but I seem to spend more and more time "protecting" myself from the wolves of digital society as well as all the intricacies of the bureaucratic nightmare in which we live. Back up this drive, update that program, change every password, credit freeze that account, do/don't sign back of credit card, make sure your fire insurance isn't under insured, update your will/trust, do tax planning for next year, on and on and on. All this "overhead" work seems to negate much of the good life we think we have.

Posted by:

Rex Bosse
05 Dec 2018

We reported fraudulent use of our credit card with a history of businesses used and were later informed the police were able to arrest a restaurant employee that was copying card numbers to use within a nationwide gang. Our potential loss was covered by our credit union, who called us as soon as they saw a purchase on the other side of the US, moments after we used our card in our home state. Only one transaction was made, although a potential purchase of a $2400 ring in New York was foiled because the jeweler refused to turn over the ring until he could verify the purchase on Monday morning. He must have been suspicious...

Posted by:

David S
05 Dec 2018

Store all your wallet cards' account information on Dropbox??! Surely you jest.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2018

Echoing Ken Mitchell above, I have had my card rejected at the Post Office. Also like Ken, I borrowed the pen on the PO desk and signed my name. The employee kind of frowned at me and rang it up. The only place I know that still takes checks (will not accept any plastic) is my favorite auto inspector. He also takes cash so- :-)

Posted by:

Bob Buffington
06 Dec 2018

Would you see anything wrong with photographs of what's in your wallet being stored on a thumbstik then in a fireproof safe?

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