Expert Q&A

Not signing your plastic has its hazards


Contrary to popular myths, not signing your credit card or writing See ID” in the signature place does not prevent identity theft.”

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I’m very careful with my credit cards. I never sign the back of my cards because my husband told me that way thieves can’t copy my signature, and the store clerks will have to ask for photo identification.

Should I write something in the blank space on the back of my card, like “See ID”? — Lorraine

Answer for the expert

Dear Lorraine,
You’re right — the thieves won’t be able to copy your signature. Unfortunately, they won’t need to — they can just sign your card themselves and then their signature on sales slips will always match.

The other problem with not signing your card is that you may not be able to use it. Your card is not valid until you sign it, so a store clerk who knows the rules is actually obliged to decline your card! Of course, many clerks won’t bother or will be afraid of losing the sale, so they’ll let it slide. Still, you never know when your unsigned card will bring the checkout process to a standstill. If you haven’t signed any of your cards and don’t have cash, you’ll be out of luck.

Writing “See ID” on the back doesn’t help much. The alert clerk can still refuse to take an unsigned card. (In fact, if she takes an unsigned card and the charge is later disputed, the store may not get paid.) The less-alert clerk may not notice the “See ID” note, and she’s not really obligated to ask for ID even if she does. A common misconception is that merchants can or should ask for ID when you use a credit card. However, the Visa handbook for merchants specifically says they cannot ask for ID as a condition of the sale.

Asking for ID isn’t foolproof, either. A really determined thief can simply have ID made to match your card.

If writing “See ID” makes you feel better, go ahead and sign your card and add the note. It won’t hurt anything. However, these tips are more effective ways to keep your credit cards safe:

  • Make a list of all your credit card numbers and contact phone numbers. The easiest way to do that is to scan the fronts and backs of all your cards.
  • Limit the number of cards you have, and don’t carry more than you need. If you shuffle your cards like a dealer at a casino when you’re at the checkout counter, you’re carrying too many. You could lose a card or have it stolen and not notice for weeks.
  • Don’t lose it! That’s easier said than done. I like machines that let me scan my own card so it doesn’t leave my hand. The next best thing is to make a habit of checking for your card before you put your wallet away.
  • Read every line of your statement every month. Better yet, check periodically online. The sooner you find mistakes, the better.
  • Don’t loan out your card. You should see the tales of woe I get from people who did. You’re better off lending or giving cash — at least that way there’s a limit to how badly it can turn out. Even if your friend or romantic interest is faultless, it’s harder to track charges and make sure the card is always where it should be when someone is using your card.
  • Know the rules. Most people believe they’re not liable for more than $50 in fraudulent charges on their credit cards — and that’s generally true. But it’s not that simple. Read “4 keys to credit, debit card zero-liablity policies” for more information.
  • Report any fraudulent activity or lost cards immediately. Time is of the essence! Read our Wallet protection toolkit story, which tells you exactly what to do if you can’t find your card or suspect someone is using it.

See related: Should you write ‘See ID,’ not sign, back of credit cards?, 5 steps to avoid ID theft at the register, How to check for, fix ID theft or fraud, Wallet protection toolkit, 4 keys to credit, debit card zero-liablity policies

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