Computer Hacker with mask
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They come slinking out of the shadows like disembodied spirits, trying to steal your life and all that goes with it. No, not ghosts, ghouls or vampires: We're talking about a more modern diabolical threat -- identity thieves looking to make off with your hard-earned cash. On this day of tricks and treats, we offer you a few tales of the unfortunate victims of such tricks -- and treat you to some advice about what to do if it happens to you.

Double Trouble

About 10 years ago, I had a Discover Card as a backup card. I had never used it and the physical card had never left my L.A. apartment. I happened to be visiting family in the D.C. area when I got a call from Discover asking if I had just purchased $5,000 worth of watches at a jewelry store in downtown L.A.

It turns out someone posing as my (nonexistent) husband had contacted them and asked them to send a new card to an address in Encino. I still don't know how someone intercepted my mail to get my Discover Card info or how he got away with pretending he was married to me! Total mystery. Fortunately, Discover didn't hold me responsible for the $5,000 and I immediately canceled that card.

Then last year, my credit card number was stolen and suddenly a few charges in a row of a few thousand dollars each -- all purchases made in Sweden -- appeared on my account. My credit card company didn't call me until the third charge went through. It took me a lot of calls and several months to get it straightened out. But because I didn't pay for those Swedish charges right away, the credit card company charged me interest on them. It took many months and a ding on my (otherwise great) credit before the interest charges were deleted. -- T.M., Los Angeles

Credit card fraud affects around 10 percent of all Americans each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, so odds are it will strike you at some point.

Keeping an eagle eye on your credit card charges is key -- the sooner you alert your credit card issuer to fraudulent charges, the faster you can stop the crook. The good news is, credit card companies have become quite familiar with fraudsters' patterns now, and most are good about removing the charges quickly.

Ghouls Go Shopping

Not too long ago, I had my wallet nicked from inside my purse while having dinner at a busy London pub. I didn't realize it was gone until the next day, so when I logged onto my various accounts to check if anything had been charged, I was in for a shock. By that point, the thief had gone on a proper shopping spree -- all funded by me!

In less than 24 hours, he or she had charged more than £3,000, from rail tickets to designer luggage to a night at a luxury London hotel. I felt sick to my stomach as I scanned through the charges. The thought of someone preying on me was bad enough, but having to put a stop on my accounts, submit all the charges as fraudulent, and replace each card was daunting. Luckily, my bank and credit card companies were incredibly helpful and quick to return every last penny to me. -- J.R., London

There's not much you can do to thwart a determined thief other than keep a close watch on your wallet. But carrying only one card around can at least make the theft a little less painful. It's also a good idea to photocopy all your cards, front and back, in case you need to contact your banks and credit card companies quickly.

Bad News Bidders

I woke up one morning surprised to learn that I had bought $34,000 of electronics. Only I hadn't. I had fallen for an eBay phishing scheme and the con had used my account to purchase a man cave's worth of gear in my name, shipped to a different address. Ironically, I had received emails about the ongoing purchases but ignored them because I assumed they were phishing emails! Thankfully, eBay 100% understood and unwound the purchases immediately. -- J.M., Sydney, Australia

Phishing has become ubiquitous -- if you have an email account, it's likely you've been targeted -- and the tricksters are moving their scams to text messages now, too: Ferris Research says more than 4 million phishing texts were sent in 2012.

There's one fail-safe way to avoid phishing scams that look like they come from your bank, credit card issuer, or popular sites like eBay (EBAY) and Paypal. Simply delete the message and type the company's web address directly into your browser. If the message is legitimate, eBay, Paypal, and many financial companies store it in an online "message center" in your profile that you can access from their sites. If you're really concerned, call the company to check.

There are plenty of scammers out there, but you can keep scary situations from becoming true nightmares with a little knowledge and planning. Happy Halloween!

Motley Fool contributor Robyn Gearey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends eBay. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days

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william.bednarz

don't over extend yourself with credit and keep track of what you do. If you can not pay it off in full every month -CANCEL IT

October 31 2013 at 12:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ava

Many of these stories are absolute fakes. There is a limit on credit card charges and unless you are quite wealthy it is fairly low. In addition any strange charges sets off a series of events like denial and telephone calls. Also, you are not responsible for more than 50.00 in charges, shall I go on. Many people give their friends the cards and do not call in a stolen or lost card report because they know it will not affect them and they can get away with fraud. Shall I go on?

October 31 2013 at 9:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ava's comment
ggblank1603

I can charge over $20K at a time on my AMEX

October 31 2013 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
scottee

I bet you could find your money in Washington.

October 31 2013 at 8:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to scottee's comment
willypfistergash

I bet that's already gone as well.

October 31 2013 at 8:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
amanda jones

The worst part is when you find out the thief is a family member.

October 31 2013 at 8:04 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply