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In the fall of 2009, Kahlil Ashanti was alerted that someone had stolen his credit card details and ran up more than $2,000 on his card. The 36-year-old was able to refute the hefty charges, but he asked his bank how this was possible, considering he still had his card on him. The bank's reply was that this particular fraud had happened over the phone, and in any case, they can't control whether merchants ask for ID.

I rarely, if ever, get asked for ID when I use a card that doesn't have a PIN. Like Mr. Ashanti, I too have been a victim of credit card fraud and I don't have to look far to find others. I sent a message via my Twitter account last week asking for personal accounts of fraud and the stories came rolling in.

I heard from people who sent personal information in an email to an address they thought was from their bank - only to realize it was a scam, those who sent information from PayPal accounts to dummy sites, and even one person who had his debit pin replicated from a pinhole camera at a fast food restaurant - resulting in an unauthorized withdrawal of more than $800.

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It's not always easy to spot scams and new ones are invented every day. Considering March is Fraud Prevention Month, it's a good time to brush up on our fraud savvy. Here are some suggestions to avoid becoming one of the thousands of Canadians who are victims of fraudulent activity each month.

Keep an eye on your mail. If you are unable to pick up your mail for any lengthy period of time, file a hold mail request online at www.canadapost.ca. Or, have a trusted neighbour or friend grab it for you. Also, file a change of address notification with Canada Post and advise all your financial institutions of your change of address well before you move.

Pay attention to billing cycles. If you receive bills in the mail and recognize they aren't arriving as regularly scheduled, contact the companies to ensure they have not been fraudulently rerouted.

Be mindful of what you toss or recycle. You never know who could have access to your important documents. Never just throw them away into the garbage. It's best to shred those that contain personal financial information, like credit card offers and receipts.

Switch it up and keep it safe. Change your PIN every few months or consider reducing your daily bank card withdrawal limit. Don't send your credit card number via email, reveal your debit PIN to anyone, or make a purchase from an online store unless you are sure it is a secure site. How do you know if you're on a secure site? One way is to look at the URL when you are going to enter sensitive information. If it starts with 'https' then you are on a secure site. If you're not sure, follow up with a call to inquire.

Know your credit rating. Trans Union and Equifax each receive approximately 1,400 to 1,800 identity theft complaints every month. At least once a year you should obtain a copy of your credit report, to ensure there are no discrepancies. You can order online at www.transunion.ca or www.equifax.ca. If you get a physical every year around your birthday, because it's easy to remember, then add a financial check-up to the list as well.

If you think you've been involved in a scam, you should notify your financial institutions and report fraudulent activities to The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, formerly PhoneBusters, or Canada's Competition Bureau. You can also get more information from the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments by calling 1-888-451-4519 or emailing ombudsman@obsi.ca.

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Smart people fall for stupid scams. We get busy, we're trusting, and maybe a little disorganized. We don't review documents, or dig deeper into legitimacies, or notice when a card goes missing. While fraudulent activity can be totally out of our hands, a lot of it can be avoided by taking small but necessary steps to protect ourselves and our families.



Test Yourself: How Fraud Savvy Are You?

In support of Fraud Prevention Month, TD Canada Trust developed this quiz to help us determine just how fraud savvy we are and to learn what we can do better to help protect ourselves:

1) What does a criminal need to make a copy of your card and access your account? a) The card -- my Personal Identification Number (PIN) is on the stripe b) My PIN -- they can use a blank card c) The card and my PIN together

2) A customer's PIN is located on the magnetic strip on their card a) True b) False

3) How often should you cover the key pad when you enter your PIN? a) Always b) Sometimes c) Never

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4) What is Phishing? a) Looking over someone's shoulder at an ABM to learn their PIN b) A scam done over the phone or via email to obtain personal and financial information c) Rifling through the garbage to look for discarded receipts and statements

5) A salesperson asks you for your PIN, saying their new keypad doesn't stretch that far and they have to enter it themselves. You: a) Give them your PIN and debit card b) Decline to give them your PIN but continue your transaction and move around the counter to enter your PIN yourself c) Leave and contact your financial institution

6) How often should you check your banking and credit card statements for discrepancies? a) Always b) Often c) Never

7) You do your banking online, so when you receive your statement in the mail you should: a) Throw it away without opening it b) Read it and put it in the recycling c) Read it and shred it

8) How secure should you be with your debit and credit cards? a) Fairly secure - don't loan them to strangers but it's OK if family and friends borrow them b) Don't sweat it. If someone steals them you will be reimbursed c) Treat them like cash and know where they are at all times

9) You go to pay for lunch and your credit card is gone. What should you do? a) Call your credit card company immediately to report it lost b) Dine and dash c) Drop by your bank branch a few days later to report it missing

10) What should you do if you receive an email from your financial institution asking for your banking information? a) Enter the information b) Delete it because your financial institution would never ask for your banking information via email c) Contact the email sender to find out more

11) What should you do with expired identification and credit cards? a) Throw them away b) Save them because you like the way you look in the photo c) Shred them

12. You sell something online to a stranger who sends you a check for too much and asks you to wire the difference. You should: a) Do as they ask because you trust the selling site b) Do as they ask because if the cheque's no good your bank will reimburse you c) Cancel the transaction and rip up the cheque

Give yourself 2 points for every right answer: 1.c) 2.b) 3.a) 4.b) 5.c) 6.a) 7.c) 8.c) 9.a) 10.b) 11.c) 12.c)

If you scored 20-24: You run a tight ship - your information is pretty safe

- You have a place for everything and everything is in its place so you know almost instantly if something is missing or not right. Now, while you may not apply this strategy to every aspect of your life (we know about your junk drawer), you know that your debit and credit card is safest with you and you know how to keep them from getting into the wrong hands.

- Not only do you shield your PIN during the transaction but you take your transaction record and destroy it when you no longer need it. Remember to do the same with any expired identification or personal papers you no longer need.

- You probably don't have much to worry about since fraudsters tend to pick on easy targets. You are very careful and aware of how to protect yourself, so keep up the good behaviour.

If you scored 14-18: You know the basics, but there is more you can do to protect yourself

- Take extra precautions to protect your personal information. Maybe you don't share your PIN with anyone - but are you sure your PIN is a number that would be hard to guess? Avoid using your birthday or part of your phone number.

- Since e-mail isn't always secure, you know better than to send private information, like your credit card number, this way - but remember, not all websites are secure either.

- Make sure you are shopping on a secure website or look for merchants who use added security features, like Verified by Visa, before entering your credit card information.

- Also, shred your personal information. There is only one of you, let's keep it that way.

If you scored under 14: Be careful - you're sharing too much

- Take the time to protect what is important - your identity, your money and yourself. Don't be so carefree with personal information. Never lend your cards to anyone, or give anyone your PIN. Even better, memorize your PIN so you don't need to write it down. And, never carry your PIN with your wallet.

- Unless you initiated the call, do not provide your credit card number over the phone.

- Though email is a convenient way to contact someone, your financial institution will never ask you to verify your banking information that way. And remember, that king from a far off land asking you to share your bank account information is not actually going to make you rich.

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About the Author
Angela Self

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies, a group of five women who specialize in personal finance. They are hosts of a self-titled show on the W Network and the authors of The Smart Cookies' Guide to Making More Dough. More

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