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Sign your credit card, don't write 'See ID'

Anti-fraud strategy is outdated, ineffective

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Nobody wants to be a victim of credit card fraud. But if your strategy for protecting yourself is to leave your signature off your cards and write "See ID" instead, not only is your game plan ineffective, but it's outdated.

The idea behind writing "See ID" on a credit card is that if your card is stolen, a merchant won't complete a transaction when the thief can't produce a valid identification card. But does the strategy work?

"I've written 'Check ID' on both credit and debit cards since 2004 [and] I've had my card number stolen twice, so I don't believe it helped at all," says Woodbridge, Virginia, blogger Rosemarie Groner.

Sign your credit card, don't write 'See ID'

The biggest reason the strategy doesn't work is because merchants don't always look at the backs of cards. "A merchant is not obligated to ask for any identification at all before allowing use of a valid credit card," says Stephen Lesavich, co-author of "The Plastic Effect: How Urban Legends Influence the Use and Misuse of Credit Cards."

Thanks to newer technologies, some transactions don't even require a credit card to change hands, says Doug Johnson, senior vice president of payments and cybersecurity for the American Bankers Association.  For example, some department stores have point-of-service terminals where customers swipe their cards themselves and then sign the display. Also, contactless payment cards and smartphone payment systems let you wave your card or phone 1 to 2 inches from a card reader to make a purchase, again negating the need for a merchant to handle your card. Finally, most major card networks have instituted no-signature-required programs, which negate the need for you to sign for purchases that cost less than a certain amount, such as $25 or $50.

An unwanted result
Not only does the strategy of writing "See ID" rarely help, but it can also backfire on you. "If you don't sign your card and it gets stolen or lost, it just makes it easier for the thief to sign it," says Steven Weisman, author of "Identity Theft Alert: 10 Rules You Must Follow to Protect Yourself from America's No. 1 Crime." Then if a merchant compares the signature at the checkout counter to the one on the card, it will match.

The strategy can also stop you from making your own transactions. "When you're signing the back of the card, one of the things you're doing is completing the contract with the credit card company so the merchant is not required to honor that card unless it has been signed," says Weisman.

According to Visa's 2014 Card Acceptance Guidelines for Visa merchants, an unsigned credit card is not considered valid and merchants are instructed not to take it. MasterCard has similar rules. In fact, some variation of the phrase "Not Valid Without Signature" can be found on Visa and MasterCard credit cards.  American Express also advises customers to sign the backs of their cards, says spokeswoman Kimberly B. Litt.

Worst-case scenario not so bad
Before "See ID" advocates panic, it's important to note that having unauthorized charges made using your credit card is not the worst fate you can suffer. Federal law limits your liability to $50 for unauthorized transactions and major credit card all have zero-liability policies that further reduce risk.

You also don't have to bear the sole burden of protecting yourself from fraud. Credit card issuers spend a lot of money on monitoring systems and controls that can "detect fraudulent activity and help protect accounts from misuse," Litt says.

But if it makes you feel better to write "See ID," go ahead. Just make sure you also sign the card, Weisman adds.

The evolving look of fraud
A final thing to consider is that credit card thieves have changed with the times. Most of the fraud that we're seeing has nothing to do with a stolen credit card, says Johnson. You have a higher risk of being impacted by a data breach such as those that took place in recent years at Target and Home Depot, "where a massive number of card numbers have been compromised," Johnson says. In those cases, thieves create new cards using your credit card numbers or they use the Internet to make card-not-present transactions. So a lost or stolen card is really the least of your worries.

Experts suggest taking steps more effective than writing "See ID."

  • Monitor your accounts weekly rather than waiting to see your monthly statement, says Johnson. That allows you to spot an unauthorized transaction immediately and prevent subsequent charges.
  • Sign up for text and email alerts to be notified about when charges are made to your account, Litt suggests.
  • Leave some of your credit cards home, carrying only those you plan to use.

Once you've taken those precautions, try to keep the threat in perspective. "While we always need to be cognizant of our responsibility in terms of security, we also need to remember that millions of these transactions are accomplished safely every day," Johnson says.

See related: Data breach protection: 10 tips

Updated: March 25, 2015


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Updated: 04-24-2015


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