How to protect yourself against credit-card fraud:
* Don't write your credit-card number on a check. (Come Jan. 1, a new state law will prohibit the requesting or recording of a credit-card number as a condition for accepting a check. However, a merchant can still ask to see a credit card and can record what kind of card it is and the issuing company.)
* Don't put your address and phone number on credit-card slips. Although a Maryland law effective last July prohibits merchants from requiring consumers to do that, there are exceptions. These include instances when the information is needed for shipment, delivery or installation or for special orders. In addition, a phone number and address can be requested for small purchases -- those under the limit needed for authorization -- or by stores that still mail their credit-card slips to a processing center.
* Keep a list of your card numbers, expiration dates and the phone number of each issuer in a safe place.
* Carry just the cards you need for a shopping trip.
* Keep an eye on your card after giving it to a clerk. Take it back promptly, and make sure it's yours.
* Make sure clerks fill in credit-card slips correctly and legibly, even during the holiday rush. Draw a line through any blank spaces above the total when you sign slips.
* Tear up any carbons. Keep your copy of the charge slip.
* Never sign a blank slip.
* Open bills promptly and check them against your receipts.
* Never give your credit-card number over the phone unless you initiate the call, and then only if you are buying something or securing a hotel reservation.
* Never give your number for "validation" or surveys.
* Never put your card number on the outside of an envelope or on a postcard.
* Sign new cards as soon as you get them. Cut up old ones.
* Report lost or stolen cards immediately.
* Check your credit record periodically.
Sources: Maryland Commissioner of Consumer Credit, the federal government and trade and consumer groups.