Credit card fraud is big business, worth at least $16 billion per year in the United States alone. Many of the criminals who engage in credit card theft work with multinational syndicates, too, so that a credit card account number stolen in a rural town in America may wind up halfway across the world within a few hours. From there it might be used to clone dozens of fake credit cards that are sold on different continents – and all of that could potentially occur before the legitimate cardholder even knows that their data has been compromised.
The good news is that there are some simple and easy ways to protect yourself from credit card crimes. As with any kind of crime, the bad guys prefer “soft” targets – those potential victims who have their guard down and are not aware of how to safeguard themselves or their valuables. By following a few basic tips and guidelines, you can make yourself less vulnerable and become a much less inviting target. The following expert steps and insights can protect you and give you the peace of mind and confidence that you deserve as a consumer.
Review Your Monthly Statements
The FBI arrested a criminal ring a couple of years ago, after discovering that they had stolen millions of dollars – from thousands of consumers – a few dollars and cents at a time. How the scheme worked was that instead of charging huge amounts to credit cards, which would raise suspicion, these thieves added rather small and insignificant charges every month, in amounts that would not be noticed by credit card holders. By the time the activity was detected, the crooks had amassed a great deal of cash by stealing a few dollars at a time from thousands of different accounts.
The lesson here is to review your monthly account statements for suspicious activity, every month. It only takes a few extra minutes to scan the pages. Do you see any charges you do not recognize? If so, call your credit card company and ask them to explain the charge.
Invest in a Paper Shredder
Believe it or not, many cases of credit card fraud happen because bad guys go through trash left by the curb or deposited in a public landfill to steal credit card data. Your monthly statements contain lots of information that would-be thieves can use to steal your financial identity and commit credit card fraud. So after you review them, be sure to shred them so they are destroyed beyond recognition. Junk mail that you receive from credit card companies can also be used to apply for credit in your name, so never just toss any marketing mail or advertisement from a financial institution into the trash. Always shred it first.
Shredders have become quite affordable, but if you absolutely cannot afford one then you can destroy those documents by dumping them into a sink filled with water and leaving them overnight. By morning they should be a lumpy glob with the consistency of paste, which you can throw into a trash bag. But when you consider the effort that goes into that method – and the amount of water needed – buying an economical shredder may actually wind up costing you less over the long haul and being better for the environment. To find the most economical shredders, look for models that fit over any ordinary trashcan. They work great and the reassurance you get from knowing your data is protected is worth the investment.
Be Vigilant When Shopping Online
When using your credit card online, be sure you shop with merchants that you know and trust. Otherwise you can wind up buying from an online store that doesn’t do an adequate job of protecting your financial information. One of the first things to do is to look at the website link that is displayed at the top of the page you are browsing. Web links typically begin with the letters “http” – as in this address for Google: https://www.google.com. Do you notice the “s” at the end of the “http” prefix in Google’s address? That “s” means that the website has robust security protocols in place. The page where you finalize purchases on e-commerce sites should also have that “https” prefix in the website address, and if it does not that may not be a secure site for you to do credit card transactions.
Keep in mind that if your personal card is lost or stolen and you report that to your credit card company promptly, you are only liable for a maximum of $50 in losses due to fraud. That’s thanks to federal consumer protection laws. Many debit cards or business credit cards do not, however, have those same protections. For that reason it is best to avoid using business credit cards and debit cards when shopping online.
Beware Email, Phone, and Text Message Scams
Oftentimes fraud involves scams where criminals pretend to be your bank or credit card company. They even use fake websites and fake email addresses, and some of the emails they send include copies of the bank’s official logo and other convincing information. These communications usually ask you to reply with your account number, password, or other private and confidential information. Sometimes they claim that if you do not do that ASAP your credit card account may be cancelled.
The truth is, banks never request changes to your account or personal data via email or text messages. Don’t ever respond with any of your credit card or other personal data. Instead, take out your credit card and find the customer service number printed on the back of it. Call that number and let them know about the notification you received. If it was legitimate, they will know – and if it was an attempt at fraud they will be glad you reported it to them.
What if you are contacted by phone from someone who says they represent your credit card company or bank? In that case, ask them for their name and the name of the department they work for within the company or bank. Then tell them you will call them back. But do not use the number they give you over the phone, or the number they used to call you. Instead, look up the customer service phone number on your bank or credit card company’s official website or one of your monthly statements. Call that number and tell the customer service person what just happened. If it was a legitimate phone call they can verify that, but if it was a fake call from a con artist your credit card information will still be safe and secure.
Use Stronger Passwords
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University – one of the best computer engineering schools in the world – advise that longer passwords that involve phrases are much more secure and harder to crack. The other reason why a “pass phrase” is a good idea is that it can be easier for you to remember. Experts recommend that you use a combination of numbers, letters of the alphabet, and symbols (such as #,&,@,$, +, etc.) and make your password 12 or 13 digits or characters long. The easiest way to do that is to create a phrase you will remember.
Here is a simple example of how to do that. Let’s take a phrase that a lover of hotdogs might use, like “I ate 4 hotdogs!” That phrase contains 11 letters, one number, and a symbol – the exclamation point. Put it all together as a password and it looks like this: Iate4hotdogs!
That is easy for a hot dog lover to remember, and super-hard for a criminal to guess. Here’s another example, where you swap a letter of the alphabet for a symbol that resembles it. In this case we’ll use $ instead of S. We’ll also use numbers to replace words, and wind up with this password: Luv2$hop4$tuff
That password phrase, which translates into “Love to shop for stuff” contains two symbols, two different numbers, and 10 letters.
Practice password creation until you find ones that resonate with you. Have fun, be creative, and come up with passwords of your own that are complex and hard to decipher. Then get into the habit of changing your passwords every few months. A good way to remember to do that is to change them for new passwords every time you set your clocks ahead or behind for Daylight Savings Time, in the spring and in the fall. Or be extra vigilant and change them with the seasons – winter, spring, summer, and fall.
Red Flags at Gas Pumps
Credit card thieves can use gadgets called skimming devices to steal data from gas pumps, so be on the alert. Before inserting your card, always grab the slot that it goes into with your fingers and give it a shake. The apparatus should be firm and solid. If you move it and it wiggles and rattles around, that could be because a thief broke into the gas pump and installed an electronic skimmer. In that case, report the suspicious gas pump card slot to the store manager, and move on to another pump that doesn’t give off any warning signals.
Social Media Vulnerability
The account information that relates to your credit card or credit cards is what is really valuable – so get in the habit of protecting that sensitive information, wherever it lives. Don’t store credit card information in your smart phone, for example, unless it on an app that was created by your bank and downloaded directly from your bank. Never include confidential information in texts or emails, either.
How important is this? Research published by the major credit card processing company Visa revealed that American consumers share way too much sensitive financial information through social media, either on purpose or by mistake. More than 58% of consumers surveyed admitted sharing sensitive data on social media, and 7% even posed their Social Security number.
Fraudsters troll social media looking for details they can use to commit identity theft, like birthdays, home addresses, or password clues like your mother’s maiden name or your pet’s name. Sometimes people post photos on the Internet, and their credit cards are visible in the photos – so that crooks can magnify the photo and read the credit card account number. The bottom line is that it is smart to think before posting any information or photos, to be sure you do not inadvertently give away valuable data that could lead to credit card fraud.