Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
Credit card fraud comes in two different flavors: account takeover and new account fraud. Account takeover occurs when the identity thief gains access to your credit or debit card number through criminal hacking, dumpster diving, ATM skimming, or perhaps you simply hand it over when paying at a store or restaurant. Technically, account takeover is the most prevalent form of identity theft. I’ve always viewed it as simple credit card fraud, rather than “identity theft” in its truest sense.
New account fraud, as it relates to credit cards, occurs when someone gains access to your personal identifying information, including your name, address and, most importantly, your Social Security number. With this data, a thief can open a new account and have the card sent to a different address. This is true identity theft. Once the identity thief receives the new card, he or she maxes it out and doesn’t pay the bill. Over time, the creditors track down the victim, blame him or her for the unpaid bills, and demand the owed funds. New account fraud destroys the victim’s credit and is a mess to clean up.
Victims of account takeover are likely to discover the fraud in numerous ways. They may notice suspicious charges on a credit card statement, or the credit card company may notice charges that seem unusual in the context of the victim’s established spending habits. Credit card companies have anomaly detection software that monitors credit card transactions for red flags. For example, if you hand your credit card to a gas station attendant in Boston at noon, and then a card present purchase is made from a tiny village in Romania one hour later, a red flag is raised. Common sense says you can’t possibly get from Boston to Romania in one hour. The software knows this.
Victims of account takeover only wind up paying the fraudulent charges if they don’t detect and report the crime within 60 days. A 6o day window covers two billing cycles, which should be enough for most account-conscious consumers who keep an eye on their spending. During that time, you are covered by a “zero liability policy,” which was invented by credit card companies to reduce fears of online fraud. Under this policy, the cardholder may be responsible for up to $50.00 in charges, but most banks extend the coverage to charges under $50.00. After 60 days, though, you are out of luck. So pay attention to your statements. As long as you do, account takeover should not hurt you financially.
But new account fraud is another story entirely – one that can and will hurt you if you don’t protect yourself. You may not be held financially responsible for the charges themselves, but you will pay in time, and time is money. In some cases you may pay lawyers or private investigators, or you may need to take time off from work, depending on how dire your credit situation becomes. Identity theft victims have been denied credit due to the unpaid debts in their names, and have missed opportunities to purchase homes as a result.
Protecting yourself from account takeover is relatively easy. Simply pay attention to your statements every month and refute unauthorized charges immediately. I check my charges online once every two weeks. If I’m traveling extensively, especially out of the country, I let the credit card company know ahead of time, so they won’t shut down my card while I’m on the road.
Protecting yourself from new account fraud requires more effort. You can attempt to protect your own identity, by getting yourself a credit freeze, or setting up your own fraud alerts. There are pros and cons to each.
Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Speaker discussing identity theft hackers