The proliferation of technology over the past 10 to 15 years has expanded credit and debit card processing to nearly every aspect of our commercial lives. Previously reserved for large-ticket items or transactions requiring deposits, electronic payments are now regularly accepted by nearly all merchants; from the checkout line at the corner store to the smartphone of a 9-year old lemonade vendor, paying with plastic has become the new standard.
While the unarguably effortless convenience of electronic payments makes them extremely popular with consumers, we are not the only ones celebrating their recent surge. An ever-expanding underground network of data thieves is also singing the praises of our pay-by-plastic culture. The recent high profile data security breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus prove that no one is truly immune to these criminals’ cunning and calculated attacks. Even though the US is scheduled to convert its current magnetic strip system to the more secure chip-and-pin system by 2015 protecting yourself in the meantime remains critical.
Although the only 100% failsafe against theft of your credit and debit card information remains not having a card at all, utilizing the following tips can greatly reduce your risk:
Pay with Cash Whenever Possible
- It is a simple matter of volume. The less you use your credit or debit card, the less your information is available for possible theft. Even though carrying cash will increase the physical size of your wallet, paying with it whenever possible will decrease the risk of someone stealing your card info. So think twice before you swipe your card to purchase a pack of gum and a soft drink at the neighborhood bodega.
Protect Your Physical Card Information
While a large portion of payment information theft occurs in the digital world, many crooks still mine a wealth of useable info from the physical source:
- Shredding your financial information (preferably with a crosscut shredder) can prevent you from becoming an easy target for someone sifting through your trash.
- Store sensitive information discreetly and securely inside your own home. This is especially important if you have a roommate, service workers in your home or other sources of traffic coming in and out of the home.
- If you are away from your home for an extended period of time, remember to have a trusted party collect your mail or even better, request a vacation hold through the US Post Office.
- Ensure that the billing addresses and contact information for ALL of your accounts are current and correct.
Pay Attention to Your Account Activity
This one sounds straightforward enough but the effortless nature of electronic payment makes it very easy to just swipe and forget. However, early fraud detection can mean the difference between a quick card reissue and a long and often-arduous paperwork process to restore your credit.
- Check your card activity regularly either online or on your monthly statement. If you use an online interface, only access your account from a secure and familiar network.
- Remember to change your online account passwords regularly (every 30-180 days) and use a unique combination of uppercase, lowercase, numerals and symbols.
- If you receive paper billing statements, open them immediately and examine them to confirm that every transaction is legitimate and lists the correct amount.
- Contact your financial institution immediately if you notice something strange or unfamiliar on your account.
Protect Yourself at the Point of Sale
Credit card theft can occur right under your nose if you are not careful and observant. Utilize these simple strategies every time you use your card:
- Remember to keep your card out of sight until it is required for payment. Thieves have been known to snap pictures of unsuspecting victim’s cards in their hands while waiting in the checkout line.
- Keep an eye on your card during transactions if possible and always check to ensure that the correct card is returned to you. If you see someone photographing your card or running it through two different scanners alert the establishment’s management and your financial institution.
- Refrain from signing transaction receipts with blank “tip lines” as additional funds can be added to the transaction. Fully mark through any subtotal lines that you do not use.
- Always keep a complete copy of your transaction receipt. It is your insurance in the event you have to dispute the transaction with your financial institution.
Carry Your Cards Correctly
Incorrectly carrying your credit or debit card makes you a vulnerable target. Following these simple precautions can significantly decrease your risk.
- Carry only one credit or debit card with you at a time if possible. Store the other cards in a safe and secure place at home.
- Keep the card(s) you need to carry with you separate from your wallet. This will help prevent card theft if your wallet is lost or stolen.
- Consider an anti-RFID wallet or credit card holder. Studies have shown that criminals can easily obtain complete credit card information through clothing or purses by scanning a person in close proximity with a RFID scanner. There are many cost effective and stylish anti-RFID wallets (like Travelon brand) that will protect your cards from unsolicited scanning.