Clueless shopper bares all in checkout line

Credit card being swiped through a card reader

On my last visit to Target, I was absolutely horrified when a woman ahead of me in line agreed to open a Target card when asked by the cashier.

I wasn’t horrified because she wanted the store credit card.

I was appalled because this woman proceeded to provide, out loud, without question or hesitation, personal information such as her Social Security number and annual income.

In fact, the cashier asked her all the standard information contained in any credit application, including her address and phone number.

And she gave it up.

Odds were no one within earshot was a criminal or paying close attention to the exchange. But this woman broadcast more than enough information for anyone to steal her identity.

Anyone could have casually tapped her responses into their smartphone as she gave them out or even made an audio recording of the exchange.

Good news: There's a simple way to prevent your information from getting into the wrong hands in this situation. Don't apply for a card in store -- ever -- even if it means missing out on a discount on that shopping trip.

The discount is pocket change compared to the headache you'll experience if your identity is stolen.

Even a relatively generous discount like the one Target offers (5% off every purchase) is only worth $50 on a $1,000 purchase. The woman I witnessed looked to have spent a couple hundred dollars. She exposed herself in exchange for $10.

When it comes to identity theft, there are many factors you can’t control, such as the security of a store’s transaction database. But when it comes to things you can control, no discount or sign-up bonus is worth putting yourself at risk.

Stores aren't blameless, either. They shouldn't accept card applications out loud in an insecure area like a checkout line where anyone could be listening.

Even if the application process isn't oral, you still shouldn't apply for a credit card in a store, for several reasons:

In general, before applying for store credit, you also need to figure out if the discounts or rewards are worth the trouble. A little back-of-the-envelope math will show you whether your spending is likely to earn you enough in rewards to make it worthwhile to manage another credit card account.

Remember, store cards are notorious for offering high interest rates and low spending limits.

Also know that opening a new credit account temporarily dings your credit score. Think about whether you’ll be applying for any loans in the next couple of months for which you’ll want your credit score to be as high as possible.

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