No one is safe from identity theft -- not even John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
On the morning that the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments about gay marriage, Roberts was overheard telling a barista at his local Starbucks that he would have to pay cash for his coffee, as his credit card information had been stolen. The Associated Press spoke to a Supreme Court spokesperson, who confirmed that someone got hold of one of the Chief Justice's credit card account numbers. Apparently that meant that Roberts had to use cash while he waited for a new card from the bank.
Supreme Court Justices: They're just like us!
Roberts isn't the first high-profile Washington figure to become the victim of identity theft lately -- earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the director of the FBI all had their credit reports stolen and posted to a Russian website. Celebrities including Beyonce Knowles were also affected.
If the director of the FBI and the most powerful judge in the country can be impacted by identity theft, how are ordinary citizens supposed to keep their finances safe?
Short of shunning all credit cards and living a cash-only existence, you're always going to be at some risk for identity theft. We're not sure how Roberts lost his credit card number, but it could have happened anywhere. Maybe an online retailer where he'd used the card suffered a data breach that we don't know about. It's also possible he handed his card to a waiter at a restaurant, who then secretly swiped it in a portable card reader. From there, it would be a simple matter of "cloning" the card for use in stores, or simply using the number to make an online purchase.
In other words, you don't have to be an idiot to get your credit card number stolen. The circumstances are frequently outside your control.
The good news is that Roberts (and most victims of credit-card theft) can usually nip it in the bud without any financial loss. Federal law caps losses due to credit card fraud at $50, and most credit cards go a step further and offer zero liability on fraudulent purchases. That's contingent on you spotting the fraudulent charge in a timely manner and alerting the bank, so we might recommend setting up alerts on your credit card to let you know about possible fraudulent transactions; at the very least, you should carefully read your statement every month.
If you see anything out of the ordinary, just call the number on the back of your card and the bank should quickly credit you the amount and send you the new card. Like Roberts, you'll just have to pay with cash or another card until the replacement arrives.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
Top Signs You May Have Been a Victim of ID Theft
If the Chief Justice Can Be an Identity Theft Victim, Is Anyone Safe?
By Lita Epstein, credit and debt expert, WalletPop.com
When even the announcer of the The Price Is Right is a victim of identity theft, you know the crime can happen to anyone. Rich Fields, of "Come on down" fame, reportedly had $71,000 stolen and had to freeze his accounts ' including his direct deposit of his pay -- while he tries to recover the money. At least he got wise to the problem.
One of the scariest things about identity theft is that you could be a victim and not even know it. Identity theft includes any act in which your identity is used fraudulently. I'm sure you've head of credit card fraud, where someone opens an account in your name or uses your credit card number without your permission. But other common identity theft scams include bank account fraud, phone or utilities fraud, government documents fraud and Social Security fraud.
In this feature, we list four red flags that can signal that you are a victim of identity theft.
Your credit cards or other bills don't arrive when you expect them.
A thief could have changed your address with a financial institution and started using your credit card. Since the bills are no longer coming to your address, it will take longer for you to figure out the problem. Most financial institutions allow you to look at your accounts online. Do so regularly to avoid this problem. If you see charges you don't recognize, call your bank's customer service line immediately.
You are denied credit even though you know you have a good credit history.
Whenever you are denied credit -- for whatever reason -- you are entitled to free copies of your credit reports from each of the three top credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. As part of that denial, you should get a letter that tells you how to obtain those free credit reports. Take advantage of this law and review your credit report to see what the problem is. If you find fraudulent accounts on your report, follow the instructions that explain how to get them removed.
You get a call from a store about a purchase you know you didn't make.
If you do get this type of call, don't give out any information because the call could be a phishing attempt (that's when thieves pretend to be calling or emailing from a store or bank in hopes you will disclose personal financial information ' like your Social Security number or bank account password).
Find out as many details about the purchase as you can, as well as the caller's name and contact information. Look up a contact number yourself. Call the company after you've checked it out. Only after you know the company is legitimate should you give out any personal information. Then, call your credit card company and let them know that your card was used fraudulently.
Any time you suspect fraud you should place a fraud alert with all three credit reporting agencies. They will place a 90-day alert on your account, which can be extended. They will also send you a copy of your report to be sure there aren't other problems. These are the contact numbers to report fraud: