SPENDING credit cards

There are several ways to protect your identity from thieves.

Millions of Americans are at risk of identity theft every year, from common types of fraud such as online hacking, credit or debit card skimming, or even the stealing of mail.

Clearing your name and your credit report of fraudulent information can be tedious and overwhelming, but there are resources available to help.

Still, you’ve got to act fast .

“Detection is important,” said Bruce McClary, vice president of marketing at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Here are some steps to take if you feel you may have been a victim of identity fraud.

Notify affected creditors or banks:

Most credit cards have zero-liability policies and other protections for cardholders affected by identity theft. But in the case of credit card fraud, you are also protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which specifies that the maximum liability for unauthorized charges is $50.

ATM or debit cards and electronic transfers from your bank account, on the other hand, fall under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.

Reporting a lost or stolen ATM or debit card before fraudulent transactions will let you off the hook for charges made thereafter. Otherwise, you have a short window of two business days after learning about the loss to report unauthorized charges or transfers at a maximum loss of $50. The liability limit increases to $500 if you report between two and 60 days after the statement reflecting the fraud is mailed. Reporting after 60 days can leave you with unlimited liability.

Put a fraud alert on your credit report: Fraud can negatively impact your credit score, leaving long-lasting effects .

Contact any one of the three credit reporting agencies and request a fraud alert.

Fraud alerts are free and, once placed, remain on your report for one year. You can get a new one after the first year. An alert makes it difficult for fraudsters to open accounts in your name; businesses must contact you before issuing any credit when a fraud alert is on your report.

Check your credit reports: After setting up a fraud alert , you’ll automatically receive access to one free credit report from each of the three agencies.

Comb through each of your reports for signs of fraud — new accounts you didn’t open, hard inquiries you don’t recognize, payment history you can’t account for, an employer you never worked for and personal information unfamiliar to you.

Freeze your credit: A credit freeze prevents the credit reporting agencies from releasing your report to new creditors. Placing a freeze on your report is free. When you place the freeze, the bureaus will issue a PIN or password, which you’ll need when you decide to lift the freeze.

Report the identity theft to the FTC: You can report your identity theft to the FTC by completing the online form at IdentityTheft.gov or by calling (877) 438-4338 and providing as many details as possible.

Go to the police: After you’ve reported the incident to the FTC, securing a police report can help protect you from further damages .

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