It May Be a Good Movie, But The Reality of Identity Theft Isn’t Funny

Identity theft is a subject that’s near and dear to our hearts here at Credit Card Assist, and that’s why we’re excited about Hollywood’s latest take on the issue. Starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy (or as she’s more commonly called, “the woman who craps in the sink in “Bridesmaids”) “Identity Thief” follows Bateman’s character as he attempts to hunt down the person who’s stolen his identity and maxed out his cards. Hilarity ensues, but anyone who’s ever been a victim of identity theft in real life knows it’s no laughing matter.

Unfortunately, far too many people know just how unfunny it is. A staggering one out of every 20 Americans suffers the effects of this crime each year. Just last week, in fact, the FBI busted a global identity-theft ring that was active in 28 states and that had sent a total of over 200 million stolen dollars abroad. Not all identity thieves operate on such a grand scale, of course, but consumers do need to watch out for the the most common scams, because they happen all the time.

Skimming is when criminals use a fake credit card reader to obtain your account information, usually at ATMs and gas pumps. They place a device over the swiper that’s pretty much undetectable, and that little apparatus sends them your card number. Criminals also often hide a camera or place a skin over the keypad in order to obtain your PIN. Then they use your hard-earned money to buy a yacht, a penthouse in Miami and a lifetime subscription to High-Tech Criminals Digest, or whatever it is that identity thieves read. It’s unclear just how often skimming is happening, but it is clear that it’s a lot. Consumers, businesses and banks lost over $18 billion to identity theft in 2011 – and you can bet that skimming accounts for a big percentage of that.

So what do you do if you notice a fraudulent charge on your credit card statement and suspect that you’ve been skimmed? First, congratulate yourself on your diligence. Far too many people don’t watch their accounts as closely as they should. They let fraud slip through the cracks, and the bad guys win. Next, be sure you understand your rights. Under the Truth in Lending Act, if your credit card has been used without your consent, you can be held liable for no more than $50. Then, take action. Contact your bank or credit card company – usually you have to call – and let them know what’s going on. They’ll put a fraud hold on your account. With credit cards, there are no time constraints on when you have to report fraudulent activity, but common sense dictates that you should do so ASAP.

If you get skimmed and have to go through the insanely irritating and nerve-wracking process of getting your money back, it may be tempting to just say “thank God that mess is over” and put it all behind you. We could hardly blame you, since the average victim of a skim scam spends 12 hours and $354 trying to set things straight.

But don’t do that, at least not quite yet. No, we aren’t going to suggest you take cross-country road trip to personally track down the criminal, like in the movie (you’re more likely to end up in a bodybag than you are to make nice with the thief, get your identity back and live happily ever after). What you should do is file a complaint with the FTC. This lets them know what’s going on so they can spot patterns and catch the thieves. After you do that, let us be your personal credit card fraud therapists. Feel free to vent all about your ordeal in the comment section.