If the Chief Justice Can Be an Identity Theft Victim, Is Anyone Safe?

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

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.