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The Fayette Observer (North Carolina)
Jun 21, 2005

by Catherine Pritchard

Protect yourself against identity fraud

Naturally, you worry about fraud and identity theft if your credit cards are stolen.

But what if your account and personal information is stolen by a thief who never lays a hand on your credit cards?

What if your data is stolen from a supposedly secure computer system?

It has happened with increasing frequency, according to consumer advocates.

Yet another instance was reported Friday when MasterCard International said a hacker may have accessed more than 40 million credit-card accounts, including 13.9 million MasterCard accounts.

The other 25.1 million accounts belonged to other card brands, such as Visa, American Express and Discover.

The hacker accessed the information through the computer systems of CardSystems Solutions Inc., which processes credit-card payments for banks and other merchants.

The credit-card companies said cardholders won't be liable for fraudulent charges on their accounts, according to The New York Times.

They also said that the information stolen didn't include Social Security numbers or addresses so cardholders don't have to worry about identity theft.

But, in a statement, a spokeswoman for consumer-advocacy group Consumers Union said the news is "a startling reminder of how vulnerable consumers are to having their personal information stolen by crooks."

"This incident should serve as a wake-up call for lawmakers," said Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst for the organization, which is pushing Congress to increase consumers' ability to protect their personal data.

In a statement made to the Senate Commerce Committee the day before MasterCard announced the security breach, Montezemolo and Consumers Union senior attorney Gail Hillebrand said that even consumers who do everything right can become victims because of lax security standards at companies which deal in their personal information.

But there are things you can do to try to lessen your risks.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, based in California, said that, in the wake of the news about the most recent security breach, consumers should immediately review their credit-card balances. Many companies allow customers to do that online.

Credit-card holders should also carefully review their accounts each month to make sure there are no fraudulent charges.

If there are, they should be reported immediately. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability for unauthorized credit-card charges is limited to $50 per card.

If your credit-card company has a free fraud-alert notification system, use it, advises Jim Trippon, an author of personal-finance books. In a statement, Trippon said many card companies will send you a free e-mail alert if your account is overdrawn or if a charge over a pre-determined amount is made.

You can also review your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. You can contact Equifax at (800) 685-1111, Experian at (888) 397-3742 and TransUnion at (800) 888-4213.

Trippon says consumers should consider reviewing their credit reports at least twice a year. Starting in September, North Carolina residents will be able to get one credit report from each of the major credit bureaus once a year. To get other reports, they'll have to pay each bureau $9.50.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if you've been a victim of identity theft.

You can also opt out of marketing offers from creditors. To do that, call the National Opt-Out Center at (888) 567-8688. It's a legitimate place that's operated by the credit bureaus. You call it to remove your name from mailing lists for pre-approved credit offers.

You can also contact your credit-card issuers and find out how to opt out of offers sent by them or associated companies.

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