Stopping identity theft: Freezing credit, cash over debit?

February 21, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Cynthia Elion spent months getting thousands of dollars in Pay Day loans out of her name after her identity was stolen.

"They stated this was an outstanding loan. It is in your name and I said, 'No, I didn't take out any loans,'" Elion said. Now, Elion is primarily using cash and has taken a dramatic step to stop future problems. She's freezing her credit with each individual credit agency.

"It is very reassuring because you are not worried about someone else being able to get that information and running with it," Elion said.

The downside of freezing: Opening a new account is a tedious process and it isn't recommended for those trying to build credit.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said there were about 3,000 complaints of ID theft or account numbers being compromised at stores like Target in 2013.

"It's not a matter of if it is going to happen, but when," Madigan said. "I would be very wary of using a debit card because if someone has access to that information they have direct access to your bank account."

Some security experts say you should limit the use of a debit or checking card and instead use cash or credit. However, some banks said new protections were added to checking and debit cards. Jeff Papa, who works for Chase Bank, said Chase will now advance money into your checking account while the theft investigated.

"We will put money in account, allowing you to use it so you are not inconvenienced," Jeff Papa, Chase Bank, said. Papa also said there are new text and email alerts customers can set up if a password is changed or a certain dollar amount is exceeded in a transaction.

"Most companies in the industry also offer a zero liability," Papa said.

Tisheia Harding says her check card was recently compromised so she now uses a Walmart card. Pre-paid cards and Google Wallet can add an extra layer of protection.

"I don't have a personal checking account with it being linked where someone can pull out hundreds," Harding said. "It makes me breathe a little easier."

Credit monitoring services can also alert consumers to new accounts in their names, but they have a monthly charge and they can't always tell if someone is using credit or debit cards.

The best tool: online monitoring of transactions and accounts, something most consumers already have.

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