Here’s a real-to-me conversation I hope you never have:

“Honey, I’ve got good news and bad news,” said my husband.

“Go on,” I replied.

“I left the car unlocked after we went shopping on Saturday, and the good news is, your prescription sunglasses weren’t stolen.”

The bad news? Two credit cards were.

You know the drill that follows: nervously check the balance, freeze the card, call for a replacement. But (besides locking your vehicle!) there are other steps you can take to protect your credit – and your online identity.

Take it from someone who knows all too well.

According to Consumer Reports, the best approach is to “Get Serious, Not Scared.” From their website:

“The most common form of ID theft isn’t even what most people think of as ID theft. It’s old-fashioned credit-card fraud and check-kiting, with someone fraudulently accessing your credit- or debit-card account. It affects about 4 percent of households. What’s more, in most cases, your liability is legally limited, and credit-card issuers or banks pay the direct losses, not you. Most victims suffered no out-of-pocket costs last year; those who did lost only $373 on average, half the amount lost in 2007.”

The easiest way to keep on top of your credit cards and financial accounts, of course, is to access them online. Don’t want to wait for a monthly statement to find out your card has been compromised. Most cards offer fraud alerts for consumers, too. Sign up.

In addition to the cards themselves, it’s important to keep an eye on your credit rating and credit reports. The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends an annual review of your credit report, but there’s actually a way you can get a free credit report three times a year.

Back in 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) – an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) of 1970. FACTA requires each of the three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – to provide a free credit report to all consumers, annually, upon request.

Want to review your credit information every four months? Just set up a tickler in your calendar to request a credit report from each agency once a year – say, in February, June, and October.

PRO TIP: Don’t get sucked in by the commercials and online ads. (If the jingle for “Free Credit Report Dot Com” is in your head right now, you’re not alone).

The best way to get your credit report – without signing up for credit monitoring or using your card to pay an unnecessary fee – is to visit or call (877) 322-8228. Or go analog (although you’ll have to download and complete the Annual Credit Report Request form) and mail it to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

For more information, visit the CFPB, the government agency that makes sure banks, lenders, and other financial companies treat you fairly, at

Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.