Credit card myth: Showing ID at the register

Do you know your rights when it comes to showing your ID during a debit or credit card purchase? You may be surprised!

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Unless you're buying alcohol or other age-restrictive items, you are not usually required by law to show your ID, even if you haven't signed the back of your card. This is not widely known among consumers or, sadly, many merchants; but once you are well-armed with this information, you will be able to choose which sort of checkout privacy is most important for you.

You may feel more comfortable leaving your card unsigned so that merchants will ask for your ID, thus protecting you from identity theft. However, if you have gone this route, you may have already discovered most merchants don't pay attention or take the time to ask. This means if your card is stolen, the thief doesn't even have to worry about the signatures not matching. Although many retailers (and consumers) ignore or are unaware of this, a card is actually not valid if it is not signed. Your wisest course of action is to sign your card so they can see your signature, and write "ask for ID" below it.

On the other hand, it may not sit well with you to hand over your birth date, driver's license number, address, and other personal identifiers to the stranger behind the checkout counter. Not to worry: just sign your card and, if asked to show your ID, be assured you are within your rights to refuse. Merchants are legally required to complete your purchase, and if they do not, you may report them to your card company. MasterCard makes this easy with an online form which can be found on its website. Visa's rules for merchants regarding an unsigned card are also posted on its site  As long as you can show proof of matching signatures, no other form of identification should be required of you.

If an American Express or Discover card is not signed, however, merchants can ask for a photo ID with signature and then hold your ID while you sign the back of the card and your receipt. If you would rather not present your ID, simply sign your card and you will most likely encounter no trouble.

In any case, whether you use debit or credit, ID or no ID, remember that a signed card is safer and less hassle than an unsigned one.

Published August 5, 2010

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